Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff

(mild spoilers)

Imagine, if you will, the South Downs of Bronze Age England; chalk hills covered with bright green grass and thick forest, a land of small farms and sheep and hungry wolves in the dawn. That’s the home of Drem, a boy of the Bronze People who dreams of joining the Spear Brotherhood and earning the right to wear the Warrior Scarlet like his male relatives before him. The only problem? His right arm is crippled.

It’s not something he ever really thinks about until, when eavesdropping, he hears The Grandfather announcing that’s how it will be. Hurt, he runs off into the night time forest where he – ah, but I said mild spoilers.

Warrior Scarlet is the tale of how a disabled young man finds a way to be just the same as those around him without disabilities, and how an outsider finds a way to deal with those around him. And it’s all set in this beautifully evocative “what might have been” shamanistic Celtic society, with crisp, lucid prose.

The best part of this is Drem’s outsider journey. Truth told, for a lot of it, he’s a bit of a dick often enough. Why? I think it’s because Dream reacts to the threat of not being able to live his dream by puffing himself up like a cat. If the world looks at him and sees a weakness, Drem subconsciously decides that he must act with such confidence and bravado that they start seeing a strength instead.

But it’s a story, so you know things aren’t going to go smoothly. When they go wrong, we see Drem have to learn different lessons and learn to express his strengths in a different way, when a different outsider. He becomes more patient, more empathic.

I’d like this story a lot without this arc. When it comes to brass tacks, I’ll read pretty everything Rosemary Sutcliff wrote in the Downs’ history. Her love of the place, and what might have been, shines through. Her prose is exemplary. But it is her ability to live in the heads out the outsiders and show what they are thinking that truly made her such a great. Warrior Scarlet is no exception.

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