Book review: The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

You ever read a book that sticks in your mind as being full of shining things? I know this is an older book, but … gosh, this book did things to my mind.

First off, it’s the sequel to the Eagle of the Ninth. Eagle is a story about a young Roman centurion whose father was part of the Ninth Legion, which marched away into the north of Britain and never returned. He sets out on a quest to find the eagle of the Ninth, which was the legion’s standard, and in the hands of the Britons, could be turned into a dangerous magic talisman against Rome. He’s accompanied by his slave turned best friend, Esca, a Briton who knows the tribes and languages. It’s a total bromance book and was great fun.

A friend told me that the Silver Branch’s main character is basically my character Jayesh from my After Atlantis books. Curious, I picked it up and started reading.

The Roman province of Britannia, 292 AD

Justin is an introverted, awkward young military surgeon. His family line, Aquila, has been connected to Britannia for two hundred years, but he has never set foot there till now. A Celtic leader named Curoi, called Carausius in Latin, has declared himself emperor of Britannia and the northern part of Gaul; he has gained temporary recognition from actual Emperor Maximian in honor of Carausius’ sea victories. (By now, the Roman Empire has become a Tetrarchy).

Justin is immediately befriended by a red-headed soldier named Flavius—who turns out to be his cousin, Marcellus Flavius Aquila, direct descendant of Marcus from The Eagle of the Ninth. Flavius is thrilled to meet a kinsman from the Continental branch of the family, and both lads live at the ancestral homestead Marcus and Cottia built when they’re not in the barracks.

One of those whom Justin heals in the infirmary is Evicatos, an exiled Hibernian (Irish) warrior. Cases like his demonstrate Justin’s skills as a doctor and bring him, and his inseparable cousin, to the notice of Carausius himself.

But when Justin and Flavius witness an apparent act of treachery by Carausius’ minister of finance, Allectus, the world as they know it is upended. It’s up to these two, their dignified great-aunt Honoria, Evicatos, a Hibernian jester, an idealistic Centurion, a fussy little man and the boy he rescued from slavery, a washed-up former gladiator, and a small group of elderly farmhands to restore order in Britannia… (Summary from a Goodreads review because the official summary on Amazon is trash)

Anyway, the book is more or less a cloak and dagger spy novel from about chapter 5 onward, with nailbiting tension as Justin and Flavius constantly watch for spies and shadows … And maybe it’s the writing that got to me. The way it’s written paints vivid pictures in your mind.

Everyone’s attention was turned toward the Emperor, who was at that moment preparing to pour the second Libation to the gods. Everyone, that is, save Justin and Allectus. For some unknown reason, Justin had glanced again at Allectus; and Allectus was watching the moth. The moth was circling wildly nearer and nearer to one of the lamps which stood directly before the Finance Minister, its blurred shadow flashing about the table as it swooped and spun in dizzy spirals about the bright and beckoning flame, closer and closer, until the wild, ecstatic dance ended in a burst of shadows, and the moth spun away on singed wings, to fall with a pitiful, maimed fluttering close beside Allectus’s wine-cup. And Allectus, smiling faintly, crushed out its life under one deliberate finger. That was all. Anybody would crush a singed moth—it was the obvious, the only thing to do. But Justin had seen the pale man’s face as he watched the dancing moth, waiting for it to dance too near, seen it in the unguarded instant as he stretched out the precise forefinger to kill.

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

So yeah, I was expecting the cloak and dagger stuff. I wasn’t expecting it to tie into Eagle of the Ninth so beautifully.

Justin had complete faith from the first that the Eagle was what Flavius had guessed it to be, but if he had doubts, they would have left him that night as he worked in the sinking firelight with the soft sou’wester filling the night outside. The thing was strangely potent under his hands. What things it must have seen–bitter and dark and glorious things–this maimed bird of gilded bronze that was the life and honour of a lost Legion. And now, he thought, it must feel that the old days were back. Again there came to him as he worked that sense of kinship with the young soldier who had made a home in this downland valley, the young soldier who surely had brought the lost Eagle of a lost Legion home to its own people, so that Eagle and farm were linked, and it was fitting that the ancient Standard should go out from here to its last fight. The feeling of kinship was so strong that when, just as they had finished their task, someone loomed into the open doorway, he looked up almost expecting to see the other Marcus standing there with the windy dark behind him.

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

There were so many moments like this that just kind of get into your head. But what I was not expecting was that finale, as the heroes fight to save their town from rampaging Saxons. Justin goes from bandaging wounds to fighting with sword and shield and back to tending the wounded. There’s a part where he’s sitting with a dying man as the building is burning down around them, telling him that the roar of the flame is really the crowd cheering for him … and I’m getting choked up just remembering it.

Anyway, yeah, this is a good book. And all the book covers try to make out that the Silver Branch is a sword. That’s because apparently nobody who ordered the covers had read the book. The Silver Branch is this odd little instrument like a harp, except it has bells instead of strings. It becomes this running symbol throughout the book, the silver branch with its bells, vs the night moth …

Go grab it on Amazon! It’s also on if you don’t mind reading crummy scanned versions.


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