Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #43: Frontier Wolf by Rosemary Sutcliff

Another of Sutcliff’s marvelous tales of Ancient Britain, Frontier Wolf takes place in approximately 340 AD, at the northernmost outskirts of Roman occupation in what is today southern Scotland. Alexios Flavius Aquila, nephew of the governor of Northern Britain, has just been “promoted” to commander of the Frontier Wolves outpost at Castellum, but it is actually a punishment for having ordered his troops to abandon a former post under siege, and half his cohort was slaughtered.  The Frontier Wolves are a hardened lot, perhaps comparable to those forced to “take the Black” and deployed to defend the Wall in Game of Thrones—criminals, misfits, and barbarians, mostly, but all of them supposedly now loyal to their “Wolf” family and to no one else. As his sneering Uncle told him when giving Alexios his new command, “They may make some kind of man of you—if they don’t arrange for you to have a fatal accident instead.”

But Alexios is a fast learner, and realizes that hanging tough will win his Wolves’ respect in the end. So too will establishing rapport with the chief of the Votadini clan, the nearest tribe allied to the Romans with a civilized veneer. Alexios befriends the chief and his eldest son and heir Cunorix, and learns to appreciate their customs as well as their differences. He and Cunorix drink and hunt together and develop a mutual respect, and when the old chieftain dies, Alexios attends the swearing-in of his friend as new chief. Life proceeds apace and Alexios has found his niche … until Cunorix’ mischievous younger brother Connla plays a prank on a visiting Roman dignitary with little knowledge and less interest in preserving diplomatic relations with the Britons. Despite Alexios’ best efforts, tensions rapidly escalate and the peace violently disintegrates. The Votadini combine with more hostile tribes, egged on by the Druid priests who have been nearly eradicated by the Roman occupiers, and declare war on the frontier fort at Castellum. Once again, Alexios is facing responsibility for an unavoidable but doomed flight, as he leads his Wolves in dead of winter away from Castellum and toward the safety of Hadrian’s Wall four days away.

With her superb mastery of both the period and her prose, Sutcliff has created a world grown as familiar to us as our own, with characters that are full-blooded and human, flawed and heroic on both sides of the divide. We live a moment in history:  Rome never again occupies Britain north of Hadrian’s Wall and the Empire is changed forever. An exciting adventure tale set in a crystalline moment in time, Frontier Wolf is another Sutcliff winner not to be missed.