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As punishment for his poor judgment, a young, inexperienced Roman army officer is sent to Northern England to assume the command of a motley group known as the Frontier Wolves.

256 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 1980

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About the author

Rosemary Sutcliff

140 books598 followers
Rosemary Sutcliff, CBE (1920-1992) was a British novelist, best known as a writer of highly acclaimed historical fiction. Although primarily a children's author, the quality and depth of her writing also appeals to adults. She once commented that she wrote "for children of all ages, from nine to ninety."

Born in West Clandon, Surrey, Sutcliff spent her early youth in Malta and other naval bases where her father was stationed as a naval officer. She contracted Still's Disease when she was very young and was confined to a wheelchair for most of her life. Due to her chronic sickness, she spent the majority of her time with her mother, a tireless storyteller, from whom she learned many of the Celtic and Saxon legends that she would later expand into works of historical fiction. Her early schooling being continually interrupted by moving house and her disabling condition, Sutcliff didn't learn to read until she was nine, and left school at fourteen to enter the Bideford Art School, which she attended for three years, graduating from the General Art Course. She then worked as a painter of miniatures.

Rosemary Sutcliff began her career as a writer in 1950 with The Chronicles of Robin Hood. She found her voice when she wrote The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954. In 1959, she won the Carnegie Medal for The Lantern Bearers and was runner-up in 1972 with Tristan and Iseult. In 1974 she was highly commended for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Her The Mark of the Horse Lord won the first Phoenix Award in 1985.

Sutcliff lived for many years in Walberton near Arundel, Sussex. In 1975 she was appointed OBE for services to Children's Literature and promoted to CBE in 1992. She wrote incessantly throughout her life, and was still writing on the morning of her death. She never married.


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Profile Image for Sarah.
237 reviews1,114 followers
July 16, 2018
A.D. 349

Alexios Flavius Aquila is an excellent swordsman but an immature military leader. A disastrous decision nearly gets him discharged from the Roman army, but his high-ranking uncle begrudgingly pulls some strings, and well-meaning-but-inept Alexios is transferred instead.

The young man quickly discovers that discharge might have been the more comfortable option. He’s been sent to mind the fort on the very edge of Caledonia (present-day Scotland), the most northern and remote part of the Roman Empire. The soldiers here are some of the toughest and fiercest in the Empire. They call themselves the Frontier Wolves, after the wolf-pelt cloaks they wear in the tradition of Hercules’ Nemean Lion-skin.

Outside the fort walls dwell numerous Celtic tribes. The Votadini are tentatively friendly with the Romans, while others, especially the Picts, are notoriously hostile. In these far northern climes, the Druids still hold power, and they have no forgiven Rome for driving them out of southern Britain. Imperial forces here must also stay alert for conspiracies between the Scots and their sea-raiding cousins from unconquerable Hibernia (Ireland).

Alexios discovers some comforts in this bleak landscape. He’s treated well by the Votadini chieftain and becomes best friends with the old man’s two sons, steady Cunorix and irrepressible Connla. But the peace is fragile. If the Druids don’t break it, Alexios’ Roman superiors might…

Content Advisory
Violence: Several battle scenes, a single combat, and one execution by stabbing—none gratuitously gory, but most involving the deaths of characters we’ve come to care about. Casualties include women, children, horses, and a kitty cat.

Sex: It is implied that a young Celtic widow might have been raped by a marauding tribe. This is never confirmed, and a younger reader probably wouldn’t pick up on the hint.

Language: One soldier swears by Christ, while his compatriots usually swear by Mithras. Sometimes they mix things up by swearing by Ahimran or Satan.

Substance Abuse: The Votadini hold a great feast wherein the vast majority of warriors get impressively sloshed.

Politics and Religion: Brief internal monologue from Alexios about why he thinks the Mithras cult is better suited to army life than Christianity. A Druid is portrayed as a sinister character, although he is shown as a political evil rather than a spiritual one, and it makes perfect sense for our POV character to see the man as a villain.

Nightmare Fuel: The Votadini play a primitive ballgame with the severed head of a calf. The foul thing leaves a faint bloody residue all over the playing ground, and one of its eyeballs falls out during the game.

Frontier Wolf was published in 1980, twenty-three years after The Eagle of the Ninth. in her foreword, Sutcliff states that she had always wanted this story to be part of the Dolphin Ring sequence, but no evidence of Roman occupation that far north had been unearthed until the late seventies. Chronologically, this installment fits between The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers.

I bring up the publication order and time gap because they might explain the significantly darker content and tone of this book compared to its predecessors.

Even while reading the comparatively cheery Eagle, I wondered why these books were classified as children’s. The vocabulary and sentence structure can be quite advanced. The tone is bleak. The main characters are in their late teens or early twenties. Sutcliff assumes that her readers have a basic knowledge of Roman and British history—a fairly safe assumption at the time, but not in these dumb times—and she never talks down to the reader or hits them on the head with the moral of the story.

In Frontier Wolf, the violence, while still not gratuitous, is a lot more upsetting than that of Eagle or Silver Branch. .

Granted, the series so far is so sexless it makes the Chronicles of Narnia look like today’s hormone-marinated YA by comparison, but “lack of romance” does not automatically equal “kids’ book”, especially when the rest of the book would be a hard read for youngsters regardless.

This is a dark and sorrowful story, not dark for the sake of darkness like so many today (*cough* An Ember in the Ashes *cough*), but accurately reflecting a dark period in history, a time when Roman apathy and the anger of various “barbarians” would bring about the Empire’s end, taking antiquity itself with it, in about a hundred-and-fifty years.

It’s also the personal tragedy of a young man trapped between horrible choices, always wanting to do the right thing, and having to settle for doing as little damage as possible. I shed a few tears for Alexios.

The most searing installment yet in a series I’m so glad to have found. Recommended.
Profile Image for Dan Lutts.
Author 4 books96 followers
September 18, 2018
Frontier Wolf continues Rosemary Sutcliff's saga of the Aquila family that she related in The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers. Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila is second-in-command of a frontier outpost in Germany during the 4th century. He's only 23 and inexperienced for the position but received it because his uncle is Governor of Northern Britain. His inexperience proves his undoing when the commander is killed in an attack by local tribesmen and Alexios takes command. He panics and, against the advice of an experienced officer, orders a retreat. The retreat turns into a rout and only the timely intervention of reinforcements from a neighboring fort prevents a total massacre. Humiliated and in disgrace, Alexios faces an inquiry. But instead of being court-martialed, he's given the assignment of leading the Frontier Wolves, a band of undisciplined Rome-aligned tribesmen at a fort on the fringes of the Roman frontier in northern Britain. (Again a result of his uncle's intervention, but not for the reason you'd think.)

The assignment is not a promotion. The Wolves don't like outsiders and will kill Alexios if he doesn't gain their confidence. Alexios also has to win the support of the local chieftain during this period of temporary peace. When a sudden tragedy breaks the peace and threatens a repeat of Aquila's previous humiliation, Aquila must prevent his failure in Germany from happening again in Britain.

I really enjoyed this novel. Sutcliff vividly describes life of both the Romans and the tribes living on the 4th-century British frontier. At first, I thought the early chapters about how Aquila settled into his new life among the Wolves and the local tribes was slow. I was actually thinking that maybe this was a only three-star novel. But when the pace picked up, I realized that Sutcliff had not only been establishing the setting but also the relationships, which were crucial to the novel's ending. My heart actually ached for Aquila when he had to make some tough decisions that he knew would produce horrible consequences for himself and others whichever way he decided. Sutcliff also portrayed the Romans, the Wolves, and the local tribesmen as real people, not stereotypes. For me she succeeded because I was torn about how the novel ended and what happened to the characters whom I had come to like.
Profile Image for Oreotalpa.
23 reviews4 followers
June 9, 2011
This is currently tied with The Shining Company as my favorite Sutcliff novel; both retread a lot of her favorite tropes and themes, including those present in Eagle of the Ninth. I am more ambivalent about Sutcliff than many fans, and particularly ambivalent about Eagle of the Ninth; I generally prefer her later work. Frontier Wolf comes very close to perfect for me, though.

Like all Sutcliff novels it's deeply, richly atmospheric and gorgeously written, evoking a strong and vivid (if not always 100% accurate) sense of time and place. I found fewer jarring "she's really writing about 19th century Britain, isn't she?" notes in this than in some of her other books. The characters are cleanly sketched but not always emotionally engaging, although I think I grew more emotionally attached to Alexios than to any of her other protagonists. Alexios has a character arc which takes him from a crucial mistake to a resolution I can't really say anything about without spoilers--but I really love having a protagonist who is allowed to fail and fail badly, and who accepts the consequences for that failure, something which seems increasingly rare these days. I found Alexios' path incredibly satisfying.

Frontier Wolf revisits Sutcliff's pet themes about cultural assimilation and hybridization, but I think less problematically here than in some of her earlier books. I really love the deft yet vague touch with which she handles the various religions--not too much specific detail (we know so little about most of the religions), but enough to make the various faiths an ever-present aspect of the characters' lives.

It strangely manages to be a slow book--Sutcliff always takes her time with narrative and setting, and very little "action" takes place for the majority of it--yet incredibly tense, especially the last part--I can think of only one way the tension might have been kept higher, but I can see why Sutcliff didn't take that route. And oh, the heart-piercing moments of choice in it!

The one sour note for me, as always, is Sutcliff's treatment of female characters. In some ways this book does better because it essentially has none, aside from Alexios' mother, and if they're not there they can't bother me. On the other hand, his mother is one of the most problematic Sutcliff women I've come across, apparently existing only to cry, be unsupportive, and be regarded with contempt by her brother and her son. And while Justin in The Silver Branch longs for his father's approval and eventually gains resolution, Alexios does not care for his mother's approval, and in the end he does not earn back her respect because she is simply gone from the narrative. After all, why would a man need his mother's respect? He has the respect of his uncle and of the emperor, and mere mothers do not signify. (I suppose she is a change from the usual "queenly" ciphers, though.)

But overall, a fantastic book, a story fierce and bright and shining. I wish there were more like it.
Profile Image for Mara.
661 reviews102 followers
September 1, 2012
Cover Blurb: I’m not very fond of the redone covers of Sutcliff’s books. Some of them, I’ll admit, are good. But not this one. Guess why? Yep, it leers. And that guy looks nothing like how I picture Alexios.

What I Liked: As always, I love, love, love this Author’s characters. I have never once been disappointed in her characters. I love the relationship between Alexios and Cunorix - two friends turned against each other because of war. Hilarion wasn’t all that major of a character and he rarely said anything, but when he did, he was very funny, and I have to say that he was my favorite; he was one of those minor characters that’s just bursting with personality. And Glaucus Montanus was great fun to hate. I really liked Alexios as a protagonist - he was different from some of Sutcliff’s other legionnaire characters; he had failed his duty, brought disgrace to his family, and had only gained his previous positions because of his relations. Very different from someone like Marcus in The Eagle of the Ninth, who brought nothing but honor to his family and succeeded at pretty much everything he undertook. Alexios was a character easy to relate to, but for all of his faults, he tries to do his best anyway, and eventually proves himself to be as good as his ancestors.

What I Disliked: I wish Glaucus Montanus’s death had been a tiny bit more eventful. He is such a jerk that as a Reader, I wanted to read his demise, and the quickness of his death, while believable, was a little disappointing. But that’s a minor complaint.

Believability: As always, Rosemary Sutcliff did a lot of research, and she notes in her Author’s Note what she made up and what she didn’t. Even those things she invented are entirely plausible. The conditions and way of life all very nicely display her historical knowledge.

Writing Style: As in all of her stories, Frontier Wolf is filled with beautiful and loving descriptions of the Highlands - written in a way that only someone who has been there can write it. Her descriptions of characters is wonderfully quick and succinct - no long-winded, unnecessary details of a character you’ll never meet again; just a quick mention of each person, along with one little detail that sums of the characters’ general personality. The storyline itself would, perhaps, feel a little bit slow, if it weren’t for the subtle, but constant, foreshadowing with Morvidd.

Content: None. Rosemary Sutcliff knows how to write battle scenes without getting bogged down in ridiculous details of blood and gore.

Conclusion: There is nothing disappointing about this story and how it ends. It’s realistic, and some might say that it’s a little bit abrupt, but it fits the story completely. Frontier Wolf is one of my new favorites. There’s just so many good characters, strong camaraderie, just enough action and peril, and of course lots of wonderful writing.

Recommended Audience: Historical fiction fans, and especially those who liked The Eagle of the Ninth. This is the next book for you! Like all of Sutcliff’s books, this will appeal to both guys and girls.
Profile Image for Sineala.
721 reviews
January 11, 2013
I am having a difficult time coming up with words to explain how much I like this book.

A later addition to Sutcliff's Dolphin Ring series, Frontier Wolf once again concerns Roman Britain in the late Empire -- 343 AD, to be precise. The ringbearer this time is one Alexios Flavius Aquila, sent -- on account of a disastrous military mistake -- to the north of Britain to command the Frontier Wolves, a bunch of disreputable scouts that no one else wants, and furthermore, if they don't like Alexios, he probably isn't going to be surviving it.

The plot is the story of a year or so of Alexios' life with the Frontier Wolves, the camaraderie and friendships he forges with his own men as well as the local British tribespeople, and his growth as a commander. I suspect that sentence may give you the wrong impression (though certainly a lot of the first half is leisurely), because this is, really, a very exciting book, and when things happen they happen in a big way. Because this is also the story of Rome's retreat from the north, and when I say "retreat" I mean "half the book is spent in a terrified run south through the snow and sleet, being chased by three different tribes, with Alexios and his Frontier Wolves trying to avoid ambushes and trying to keep the bodies of the dead atop their horses so they can keep running and bring the corpses with them." There are battles, battles, and more battles. Don't get too attached to any of the characters -- or rather, do, but you're going to be sad. (The ending is still happy, though! At least in my opinion.)

The characters are wonderful (I think I like Alexios better than I liked Marcus, in some ways, and let's not even go into my feelings for Hilarion; my feelings about other characters would be too spoilery to detail here), the setting is epic, Sutcliff's usual lush and vivid descriptions are here in full force, and the whole thing is incredibly tightly plotted. The first time I read this I got about halfway through -- to the scene where the Praepositus' horse goes missing -- fully intending to read to the end of the chapter and stop. And at that point I just couldn't put the book down, because the plot ramps up and does not stop and you just have to keep reading until the characters are safe. I did, anyway. Alexios has to make hard, awful, agonizing decisions, and the story does not flinch away from that -- and yet it's not a pit of grimdark angst.

If there's anything wrong with it, it's that Sutcliff here has solved the problem of how to treat female characters by pretty much not having any, once again. But, hey, it is what it is, I guess.

I feel like I fail at writing reviews for books I really, really, adore, but I want to let you, Internet, know that this is a book I love, and if I can ever think of a better way to express this I will edit this review and say so. I loved this book enough that after I got the e-book I went and bought myself a used hardcover, just to have one to cuddle. Sure, it's a YA adventure book about soldiers in Roman Britain, about friendship and personal growth, and probably there are a lot of books with those themes (okay, maybe not a lot set in Roman Britain)... but this one's very, very, very solid.

Recommended. If you can find a copy, you owe it to yourself to read this.
Profile Image for Sarah.
69 reviews4 followers
December 24, 2019
I'd forgotten how much I adore Rosemary Sutcliff, how much she is the writer of my heart. What I particularly love is her appreciation for kindness and gentleness, and her willingness to write male characters who are soft and tender.

I fell utterly in love with Alexios reading this, and it's because of his honour and integrity and perceptiveness and compassion, how deftly he reads people and situations. I’d follow him absolutely anywhere. And a couple of occasions aside (the wolf hunt, the fight with Cunorix), it’s not strength that wins the day for him. He makes his first friend among the Frontier Wolves when he helps Rufus nurse an abandoned kitten; his mercy to the traumatised woman at the Rath of Skolawn is accidentally repaid; and he wins his men’s respect when he demonstrates his willingness to work with their grain, not against it—to let them be everything they are, both British and Roman, instead of trying to press them into a more conventional mould. (by contrast, I think that there’s something of toxic masculinity driving the Praepositus’s and Connla’s actions; a fear and horror of being weak.)

Just as with Marcus in Eagle of the Ninth (and this book is in many ways a remix of that one), Alexios’s glittering ambitions go bang right at the start of the story, and he has to find a new path for himself. Which makes it so important that when he’s given those ambitions back at the end, he rejects them for something which might not look like much by any conventional Roman reckoning, which won’t win him money and power and position, but which he knows is right for him.

Moving on from talking about character, the descriptions of place in this book are so stunning and so vivid (especially when Alexios and Cunorix ride up to the high moors after a wolf), and it puts me very much in mind of the Iliad; the contrast between the building tension and the peace of nature, the way it sees humans and their environment as inextricably one. (I really love that the characters even have Homeric epithets: Shula of the golden eardrops, or Connla with the laughter playing about him like summer lightning.)

This is the strange enchantment of Sutcliff’s writing; her facility with epic register, her ability to see the beauty in the glint of sunlight off spear tips and harness as a warband ride by, in the bravery and devotion such a company would have, while also being upfront about the emotional and physical suffering that comes with violence. Other than Tolkien, I don’t know of any other modern writer who does it so well.

While I generally love the spare economy of Sutcliff’s prose, the way her scenes work on so many plot and character levels at once, I did find it frustrating that this book doesn’t give us more in the way of explicit relationship development, that it all happens offpage. Hilarion’s loyalty and concern and protectiveness towards Alexios are so apparent in the second half of the book, and I’d love to know how exactly they got there from the wary challenge of their first meeting; what exactly persuaded them they could trust and rely on each other.

Similarly, Alexios takes so warmly to Cunorix, I think because he’s lonely and this is the first person in a strange place offering him uncomplicated friendship, but to me what we see of their interactions doesn’t quite stand up to the text’s ‘closest friend’ and ‘heart’s companion’.

All the same, this book deserves five stars because I got to the end and realised that I didn't want to let these characters and their world go. I've never before so strongly wished that a standalone were the start of a series, and that I could find out what happened to the characters after the closing lines.
Profile Image for Hazel West.
Author 25 books132 followers
July 29, 2012
Thoughts on the Overall Book: First of all, I dearly love all of Rosemary Sutcliff's books, that said, I am going to have to admit that this one is probably now my absolute favorite of all. Something about the mix of the characters, the story line, the setting and everything else just came together in that beautiful music that certain books have that cause you to die a little when they are over. Rosemary said in her author's note that she wrote this story from the idea she got while watching a western, and I can definitely see that influence in "Frontier Wolf". It read just like a Louis L'Amour novel, or even seemed to me to read like a Horatio Hornblower adventure. Military adventure are my favorite types of books, with true camaraderie portrayed, especially in the way that only Rosemary can do.

Characters: Oh where to begin!! I loved Alexios, he carries on the Aquila family line brilliantly. I have often said that "Eagle of the Ninth" was one of my favorite books because Marcus and Esca are some of my favorite characters ever, but Alexios and his companions are definitely a tie. My favorite supporting character was Hilarion, he was the easy going comrade and the end of this book between him and Alexios (not to give away anything) was just amazing, and true to Rosemary's reoccurring themes of brotherly love. I also really liked Cunorix he too was a wonderful character... Okay they all were ;)

Problems/What bothered me: Nothing ever bothers me about Rosemary's books except that I always wish they were longer! Especially this one!!

Conclusion: Just simply good all the way through. If I was in the Roman army, I would have been a Frontier Wolf ;) Perhaps my favorite part of this book was actually Rosemary's author's note, for she described so many things that were close to me as an author myself and I could definitely feel the fact that she enjoyed writing this book so much from the ease and flow with which it read. It was just like sitting down with the best dessert you can imagine and I only read it so slowly with the wish to savour it.

Recommended Audience: Ten stars if I could give them. Anyone who loves historical fiction (or Westerns) or good adventure novels. And if you are a fan of Rosemary's and have not read this yet, DO SO!! Because it really is one of her best works. It's a bit harder to find a copy of, but do search for one because it's definitely worth having on your shelf.
Profile Image for Nigel.
Author 12 books61 followers
June 28, 2019
After being thrust into command in a besieged fort on the Danube, ending in disaster, Alexios Aquila is disgraced but protected by a powerful uncle, and sent to the northern frontier of England to take over a force of frontier scouts, most of them members of the various tribes. They aren't an attractive prospect for a young Roman officer, but then neither is he for a tough group of soldiers with their own ways.

Alexios settles into his command, establishing good relations with the local tribe, but there are vague stirrings of trouble in the further north, and when it finally comes it is exacerbated by disastrous and tragic local events. There follows a riveting adventure narrative, one if the best war stories I've read in ages. Sutcliff does action and military personalities and men under extremes of stress exceptionally well.

Sutcliff's tendency to treat the Roman Empire as a civilising patrician force that benevolently rules the world via a kind of historical inevtibility rather than ruthelss military invaders gives her stories a Kiplingesque air, and indeed you could transport the essence of the story to some frontier of the British Empire without changing its essential personality and the cool sensible decency of the better types in the officer class. Sutcliffe's saving grace is that she can inhabit a wild celtic tribe just as thoroughly, if not more so, since she captures their distinctive voices so well. She reminds me a LOT of Mary Renault.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 48 books144 followers
October 20, 2022
Set in the fourth century AD, Frontier Wolf is the story of Alexios, a young, well-connected centurion, dismissed from his first command in Germany for a decision to abandon his besieged fort - he lost many men in the retreat and though he couldn't have known it, the relief force was only hours away.

As punishment, Alexios is shunted off to Britain to take charge of the Frontier Wolves, a unit of the Roman army based north of Hadrian's Wall and largely made up of indigenous tribesmen. Twelve months after his posting the brutality of a visiting Roman dignitary provokes a huge rebellion by the local Celtic tribes who are joined by Picts and Irish raiders. Alexios finds himself facing the same grim choice that confronted him in Germany: should he hold on and be gradually overwhelmed, or should he abandon his position and retreat across enemy-held territory?

It's not the kind of children's book that gets written nowadays. There are no female characters, the writing is dense, and the setting presupposes considerable historical knowledge. Nevertheless, there's much that is fine about this novel. In particular, as always with Sutcliff, the natural world is keenly observed:

"A puddling of snow still lingered in the hollows; and far off, the higher hills of the Frontier country were still maned and crested with white; but nearer moors showed the sodden darkness of last year's heather, and the wind that always harped along the Wall had gone round to the west, and the green plover were calling."

What really makes this book reading, however, is the insight it provides into the vanished world of Roman Britain. Yes, Sutcliff is not always historically reliable, sometimes allowing herself flights of fancy, as in The Eagle Of The Ninth, but she's a novelist first and a historian second. Nevertheless, she's wonderful at creating empathy, and the conflicts of loyalty with which her characters struggle are as vivid and intense as in any contemporary thriller.
Profile Image for Mary Herceg.
146 reviews
October 3, 2019
Just as amazing as ever after six years and multiple rereads. I'll write a full and proper review someday, but I definitely recommend this if you've enjoyed The Eagle of the Ninth and can handle graphic violence.

With that disclaimer about violence, and the details I included below, I will say that it's an absolutely amazing book. The writing, character development, and male friendships are top-notch. I especially enjoy the protagonist's friendship with his sidekick, and the protagonist's dynamic growth from an immature, unwise young man into a mature and wise leader--he's an amazing protagonist whom I love dearly, and it makes me so proud to see the man he becomes with effort.

It's a very, very violent and bloody book, however, so I don't recommend it to everyone. If you're sensitive to any level of violence, this is not the book for you. It's quite graphic, and it contains large amounts of blood, wounds, mutilated corpses, and killing, all of which are described in detail. I was grateful that the actual moment of killing was almost never shown, but everything before and after is described, including dead bodies of friends. A couple of the deaths in particular are not your average death in battle--they're intimate, personal, and sickening, not to mention gruesome. There's also deaths of animals, if that bothers you.

If you haven't read the first book in this series, Eagle of the Ninth, I highly recommend it. It's best to read that one before the sequels--and the first two books in the series are much, much tamer, omitting the graphic violence without sacrificing intensity, excitement, adventure, and realistic and immersive action scenes.

I wish there were more wholesome adult and young adult adventure novels like this one, with little to no romance. But for now, I'll have to be content with rereads. And Frontier Wolf will always be a favorite of mine.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
February 6, 2011
It looks like Frontier Wolf has been reprinted -- which is very good, as I never knew it existed when I was younger. Rosemary Sutcliff's work is wonderful, and Frontier Wolf is no exception: it feels real, rich with historical details and also with touches of character and interaction that ring extremely true. The small jerk of Alexios' shoulders, for example, and calm Lucius -- calm even to the last -- and the last conversation with Hilarion.

I didn't expect to love this as much -- it felt familiar, with the retreat of the Frontier Wolves echoing the stories of Marcus' father's legion's retreat back in The Eagle of the Ninth, and the odd relationship between Alexios and the tribesmen -- friendly and yet ready to burst into flame... But somewhere in there, as he won his troops' hearts and came to love them, so I came to love Alexios and love his men.

Very enjoyable, and beautifully written. Not a sour note in it, for me.
Profile Image for Abigail Hartman.
Author 2 books41 followers
August 16, 2011
One has to be in the right mood to read a Sutcliff novel, because she grabs you and drags you into the story so that you feel every change of emotion in the characters. This story is achingly sad almost all the way through, right up until the flash of hope on the last page. It's like winter, giving way at the last chapter to spring.
Profile Image for Dusk Peterson.
Author 105 books64 followers
March 8, 2017
"Frontier Wolf" is part of a series by Rosemary Sutcliff about a family that lives in Britain from Roman times to the Middle Ages. "The Eagle of the Ninth" (1954), the first volume in the series, is the most famous of Sutcliff's novels, but "The Eagle of the Ninth" was written during her early years as a writer, while "Frontier Wolf" was penned during the years when she had reached her full flowering as a historical novelist.

The plotline is simple: Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila, in the arrogance of his youth, leads his soldiers into disaster. As punishment, Alexios is sent to the frontier above Hadrian's Wall and placed in charge of a fort full of "the scum and the scrapings of the Empire," as one character puts it. The unrespectable Frontier Scouts - or Frontier Wolves, as they are nicknamed - have a reputation for killing off commanders whom they dislike.

Then a crisis arises. Alexios's life now depends on the loyalty of his men . . . and his men's lives depend on his loyalty to them.

"Alexios, walking beside Phoenix, remembered the still summer night when he had come that way, following the old Chief to his Death Place, the Clansmen sniping this way and that along the firmer ground between the winding waterways and sky-reflecting pools. The flaming torches and the mourning throb of the drums, and the lingering late northern sunset casting its golden cloud-streamers across the sky. He supposed they were on the same track now. He must suppose it; must trust to the men with the lime-daubs between their shoulders. 'When they join the Family, they bring their loyalties with them,' Gavros had said, but he felt how it might be with him, new loyalties pulling against old, if he knew the secret and sacred ways and was being asked to betray them to men of other tribes who did not."

Into this simple tale, Sutcliff pours in everything that makes her great as an author: Careful attention to detail when describing Roman military society, British native society, and the world of nature. The ability to sum up a character's personality through a few well-chosen words. A gift for understatement that heightens rather than diminishes drama. A lyrical tongue. She caps all this off with an ending that is surprising, yet wholly satisfying.
Profile Image for Colin MacDonald.
155 reviews3 followers
August 5, 2018
Like Sutcliff's other Roman Britain books, this one stands on its own. Still classified as Young Adult, but it reads pretty much as a grown-up novel. It takes place on Rome's northern frontier in Scotland, with legionnaires living in a cautious but seemingly stable peace with the surrounding tribes. I like that she took the first hundred pages or so to flesh out the setting and people before the action kicks off. In historical novels, it's good to have a sense of what normal is before adventure takes over.
Profile Image for Colin.
1,082 reviews18 followers
October 3, 2022
To read a Rosemary Sutcliff novel is to be immersed so completely in another period that you feel you can smell and feel it, and, more importantly, understand the world through the eyes of the people who populate it. In Frontier Wolf, the third of her loose sequence of novels about Roman, Saxon and Viking Britain that began with The Eagle of the Ninth, we are in the northernmost fringes of the Roman Empire in the mid-Fourth Century. Young Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila makes a disastrous decision while serving on the Danube, and is punished by being put in charge of a loose assemblage of ne’er-do-wells and local tribesmen who have thrown their lot in with Rome in a frontier fort somewhere between the walls of Hadrian and Antoninus.
Sutcliff’s descriptions of the natural world, and weather in particular, are marvellous, but set against this vivid backdrop is a story of atonement, friendship, violence and an empire that has outreached itself, that is gripping and moving in equal measure. As a portrayal of the first suggestions of a Roman withdrawal from Britain, it also sets the scene for the next novel in the sequence, The Lantern Bearers.
Profile Image for Sofia Grey.
Author 78 books281 followers
February 24, 2012
Rosemary Sutcliff writes historical drama with such an eye for detail, when you stop reading and come back to ‘real life’, there’s a brief sense of disorientation. Her work is so vivid, the narrative breathtaking in parts – and the storylines are filled with characters you come to love.

And so it is with Frontier Wolf. Alexios Flavius Aquila is a young commander in the Roman Army, despatched to the semi-wild Frontier Wolves north of Hadrian’s Wall following a disastrous command decision in Germany.

“We’ll never make it.” Centurion Clovis forgot the “Sir.”
They faced each other across the table, and after a moment Alexios said deliberately, “Centurion, I am in command here.”
And silence came down between them like a sword.
Centurion Clovis, who had grey hairs in his beard, looked back at this puppy, who with nothing to recommend him save that he was a first-class swordsman (and you could say the same of any gladiator who outlasted three fights in the arena), just because he had an influential uncle, had been promoted over the heads of men like himself, before he had time to learn his job, and said, “I should like to place it officially on record that I disagree with your decision, Sir.”

This takes place in the last years of Roman rule in Britain, and Aquila’s new soldiers are a mixture of native tribesmen and Romans. He has much to learn.

“They may make some kind of man out of you – if they don’t arrange for you to have a fatal accident instead,” said Uncle Marius’s voice in his memory.

Not only does he have to gain respect from his soldiers, he also has to maintain the uneasy peace with the local tribes – the nearest of which is the Votadini. Here at least, he finds it easier. The Chieftain’s eldest son is a similar age and they become friends.

Suddenly laughter caught at them both, eye meeting eye; a quiet laughter – men seldom bellow their mirth in the wild places – but quick and potent, linking them together.

His first Midwinter Night, two months into his new command, brings trouble. The celebratory dancing gets out of control and he has to impose his authority for the first time.

Alexios found that he was shaking a little, and hoped desperately that it did not show, as he looked from one to another of the men about him. And the men in their turn looked back, taking in the fact that their new Commander stood in their midst with one cheek cut and an eye rapidly filling up and turning black. Maybe some of them were pondering the punishment for striking an officer. Well, it would do them no harm to sweat a little.

This is a story as much about forging friendships as it is about Alexios growing and learning his trade. His seconds in command (Lucius and Hilarion), the young trumpeter Rufus, the Quartermaster Kaeso and the Chieftain’s son Cunorix all take their places in your heart. He goes hunting with Cunorix to gain his own wolfskin.

Between the darkly sodden wreck of last year’s bracken and the soft, grey drift of the sky, the catkins were lengthening on the hazel bushes, making a kind of faint sunlight of their own, and in one especially sheltered place, as the two young men brushed past, the first pollen scattered from the whippy sprays so that they rode through a sudden golden mist.

But peace is tenuous at best and things deteriorate during an inspection of the fort.

Montanus raised his voice as Alexios tried to cut in. “These people forget who is master all too quickly. They need to be taught the lesson afresh from time to time.”
“I doubt you’ll teach it them by putting the Chief’s brother up as a live target for javelin practice!”
“It’s a usual enough form of execution.”

The second half of the book revolves around Alexios trying to survive a series of pitched battles with the tribesmen and it’s difficult to tear yourself away from the pages as he throws himself wholeheartedly into the task.

The Dextra gate, well greased in advance, opened without sound onto the windy darkness of the night beyond. And men and horses slipped forward like a long skein of ghosts, one after another through the gate and down the steep track to the ford, the men of the decoy party leading the way.

Most of the story takes place in the middle of winter. I frequently looked up from the pages to see summer sunshine blazing through my windows and felt a moment’s confusion. While I read this book, I was there, with the soldiers, riding a rough pony through the wind and rain.

It’s a delight to immerse yourself in a Rosemary Sutcliff and to my relief, there are still plenty for me to read. 5 out of 5.
Profile Image for Christaaay .
379 reviews182 followers
July 28, 2015
YA/Adult Historical Fiction; originally published 1980

Premise:Twenty-three year old Alexios failed his last command miserably, but he’s determined to prove himself when he’s given a second chance: a new post commanding the feisty legionnaires on the edge of the Roman Empire—the men known as “The Frontier Wolves.”

About: Apparently Rosemary Sutcliff is quite famous in Britain for her legions (hah, pun intended) of fiction about Roman Britain. This particular book was recently re-marketed as YA fiction (in 2008), but it could also be really appealing to adults. I think Sutcliff actually wrote it as adult historical fiction that also appealed to youth. But Alexios’s age—and the lack of sexual content—make it appropriate to young adults and even children who are good readers.

My Thoughts and Feels: One Goodreads reviewer mentioned “understatement” as one of Sutcliff’s best tools in this book, and I agree, especially in relation to the characters. Compared to the flawed, loud and lovable characters of much modern fiction, these characters seem simple and quiet. There’s nothing particularly special about them—they are understated. But when they fight, you cheer; and when they die, you ache. Alexios is a good, old-fashioned hero. He accepts his mistakes, learns and pushes on until he overcomes his next challenge, and his next, and his next. I love his character. As a whole, the others fade into the background, usually with one or two telling characteristics to tell them apart.

Usually, when I'm unimpressed with the cast of characters, I knock a star or two off the rating. But I’m going to go unprecedented with this book and give it five stars anyhow, because the setting was enough of a character to keep me enthralled. I absolutely fell in love with AD 300s Britain.

Also surprising is the very slow plot in this book. I forget exactly where the plot actually began, but it was somewhere near the halfway point. Thankfully, the commander had enough work at the fort that I hardly noticed that plot lack until later. (It reminded me a lot of Lady Knight Keladry's command at Fort Haven, in the Protector of the Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce.) So I decided not to take off a star.

Overall: So there you have it: a book that manages, with little to no character development and a plot lag of epic proportions, to five-star impress me. Just a good, old-fashioned hero on a good, old-fashioned quest (of sorts). No girls, no dramatics, no contrivances, no voice, no modernism, no head-games or trickery. Just Alexios, his honest mistakes and his hard-earned successes.

I already checked out another Sutcliff book that turned out to be a part of the same series. I didn’t know that Frontier Wolf was part of a series, even after I finished it, because it flowed perfectly just as a standalone. But I’m definitely going to read more. And I have my eye on another of her adult fiction titles as well…

Recommended: Yes, absolutely! To fans of historical fiction and British history that isn’t epic or boring. I would also recommend this to parents who want to get their teens interested in historical fiction.
Profile Image for P.D.R. Lindsay.
Author 36 books95 followers
September 26, 2016
Whoever put the book up on Goodreads certainly hadn't read it, or understand the magic of Rosemary Sutcliff's writing and her way of writing characters that reach from the past to the reader's present. She does this by giving them problems we might have. Here it is having to make again a decision which once cost Alexios a great deal of pain and disgrace.

'Frontier Wolf' deals with Roman Britain under the young Emperor Constans. Alexios has an influential uncle who is Dux of Britain and this uncle uses his influence to smooth Alexios's path through the Legions. Stationed in what we know of as Germany where the tribes are restless there is an attack on Alexios's fort and the commander is killed. Second in command Alexios, and he really is too young and inexperienced to hold the post, decides to abandon the fort, against advice. He has been tricked into believing that his gallopers - the messengers - did not reach help at the other forts. He loses half his men and is only saved from ultimate disgrace by his uncle. But his punishment is to be made commander of the Frontier Wolves who guard the wild British frontier between Hadrian's Wall and what was the Antonine Wall. The men of the Wolves are called the scum and scrapings of the Empire, sent into the Wolves because they are troublesome in their Legions or are hard core prisoners sent there to be out of the way.

Alexios's command takes place just before and during the year known for the 'Great Conspiracy' when the 'Barbarian' raiders launched a coordinated attack on Roman Britain. He has no easy task but he is no fool, and with some help from his fellow officers, who are the first to accept him, he does command the men. When the attack comes, Alexios has to decide again whether to stay or leave.

One of the joys of Rosemary Sutcliff's Roman novels is that she writes about people, not a bunch of soldiers fighting. They are not 'war' stories. That is just one aspect of her many layered plots and her complex characters delight in their learning and growing, friendships and problems, living as unwelcomed strangers in a land not their own. She presents both sides as the tribes are well represented and in this novel, Alexios becomes friends with the new Tribal leader, a young man in a position similar to his own. Her research is excellent and her writing skills such that the reader is pulled straight into Roman Britain and can almost smell, touch and taste this world not their own.

For those who love lyrical writing, excellent research and a great historical story then Rosemary Sutcliff is a must. 'Frontier Wolf' is one of the Roman Legion stories which start with 'Eagle of the Ninth' and are all unforgettable, but her many other novels are as good. Don't miss them.

65 reviews
August 31, 2019
As a child I read Sutcliff's Roman trilogy, as it then was (or at least as the copies I then had, a few years old at the time, inaccurately informed me...). Recalling them as some of the favourite books of a childhood full of reading, I was delighted to realise recently that she had written more than I had previously found. 'Frontier Wolf' being the first to come to hand, I continued delighted to find the same strengths evident as found in memories of thirty and more years past. Sutcliff writes so clearly and so evocatively; the best storytellers let you in on the illusion that they were there, that they knew the time and place firsthand.

The Roman occupation of southern Britain was long ago, but should not be forgotten; its consequences inform our own times quite directly in terms of latent attitudes buried in folk memory. The borders that came to rest where their military prowess ran out of ability to push forward further have remained flashpoints to the modern day - the Romans never conquered Scotland, Wales or Ireland in any meaningful sense. A coincidence that political relations in the British Isles have so continuously since coalesced around struggle between the area that was Romanised and the areas that weren't? Not entirely. A coincidence that Britain remains alarmingly and self-harmingly antagonistic to European influence? Not entirely. Let us not forget either that the adoptive state religion of the later days of the Roman empire exerts a power over us still, perhaps their longest-lived legacy.

So it behooves us to know who the Romans were and what they did here - else we cannot know ourselves. Obscured by 1,600 and more years of history since, the topic requires assistance to climb into the awareness of the present, and wonderful stories such as these are the perfect vehicle.
Profile Image for Keith Currie.
550 reviews13 followers
May 31, 2013
This is one of my favourite novels by Rosemary Sutcliff, (along with Blood Feud and Sword at Sunset). Interestingly it is not as well known as the three Eagle novels, even though it does belong to the sequence as the hero, the young Roman officer Alexios, is a member of the Aquila family.

Like many of Sutcliff's novels this is an account of error and the opportunity of redemption and as usual it is very well done. Alexios, in disgrace, is given command of a motley crew of the dregs of the Roman army, the Frontier Scouts, whose base lies well beyond Hadrian's Wall. He must win the respect of his men as well as attempt to keep the peace with the neighbouring Caledonian tribes. The heart of the novel is the thrilling account of the retreat back to the Wall when wholesale rebellion breaks out.

Sutcliff dedicates the book to Wallace Breem among others and there is an undeniable influence from Breem's fiction evident: Eagle in the Snow for setting and time period, but even more from The Leopard and the Cliff, Breem's Afghan novel, for the theme of desperate retreat and the maintenance of loyalty under the extremes of revolt and personal danger. There also is a real feeling for the difficulties of knowing the right thing to do and doing it.

Unjustly neglected, I recommend this exciting and thoughtful novel.
Profile Image for Isis.
831 reviews44 followers
May 8, 2012
This is a better and more sophisticated book (in terms of character and conflict) than The Eagle Of The Ninth - unsurprisingly so, since Sutcliff wrote it much later, and I think it is testament to the development of her skill. For me it was a strongly emotional gut-punch of a read. Alexios is defined by the choices he makes, and some of those choices are ones he is essentially forced into by circumstances, where all possibilities are awful.

Without getting spoilery, I will say that this (along with The Mark of the Horse Lord, which I read directly afterwards) reminded me a bit of The Hunger Games; or rather that they made the latter book look like so much fluffy garbage. Sutcliff's characters face real and very serious choices they cannot cheat their way out of. This is why I loved this book.
Profile Image for Christy Peterson.
1,118 reviews27 followers
February 10, 2019
I was reading this aloud and about halfway through stopped and finished it on my own. The kids weren’t paying attention anyway, for which I was glad. I understand that this installment in the series was written later than the others. I gave it 3 stars at that halfway through point, but the end did a good job of healing. It definitely has a different feel than the others. It is much darker and has more tragedy. It started out with tragedy, and because of the normal pattern of such plots, one would expect it to rise from that, with a last climax to be overcome. It did that, but there was a lot more tragedy, death and mourning to accompany it. Pride and foolish traditions cost many lives. Stupid waste. Alas, I don’t have much hope for different outcomes in our modern world. Alexios is a good example of making the best decision when any outcome is guaranteed to be awful. He is an excellent addition to his family line in this series of books.
Profile Image for Simina.
Author 3 books11 followers
April 15, 2017
This was my introduction to the works of Rosemary Sutcliff and I don't think I could have hoped for a better one. This book has everything that makes Sutcliff the brilliant writer that she is: interesting characters, wonderful descriptions, clever insights into the world of the Biritsh tribes and their interactions with the Romans. The main character, Alexios Flavius Aquila is well-constructed and I must admit it was fun to watch him evolve from the inexperienced soldier quick to make rash decissions due to panic to the man that he finally becomes after the time spent with the Frontier Wolves. Although the book does get progressively darker,there are also moments of light that, far from slowing the pace of the story actually make the reading more enjoyable.
Profile Image for Alex.
539 reviews20 followers
February 5, 2008
Another wonderfully re-relese from Rosemary Sutcliff, Frontier Wolf follows the path of disgraced Alexios Aquila who is placed as punishment in charge of a group called the Frontier Wolves whose charge it is to defend the fleeting boundary between England and Scotland. Set in the 4th century, Frontier Wolf pays close attention to detail in the lives of an out-post, where religion blurs the lines of Christianity and the many gods of the people of Northern Britain.
An exciting read with twists and turns and many battles, Frontier Wolf is finding place with today's audience.
Profile Image for Katie.
160 reviews
February 28, 2011
This was another very good book in the Dolphin Ring series (I don't know what else to call it)!!! The strong themes in this are: loyalty, honor (is it good to retreat, or die with honor), friendship, and trying to do the best thing.
Profile Image for Els.
286 reviews2 followers
November 8, 2019
This was fierce & searing & I stayed up waaayyy too late reading it, but it just didn’t have as much impact as other Sutcliff novels I’ve read. It was really good, but not astounding, and as I also only had a paperback ... away goes my copy.
Profile Image for wayne mcauliffe.
97 reviews
February 27, 2020
One of my all time favorite authors and maybe the best of her books i`ve read.She does male friendship so well.
301 reviews
September 21, 2020
This is a type of book that I don't read a ton, so take my review with the heavy grain of salt needed for that. The closest I've really come to this type of book was my brief but intense love affair with naval books (Hornblower and O'Brian were my favorites). This is the type of book that presents soldiers in intense situations and instead of asking why they're there or should they be there or anything else, focuses instead on how do they survive and what makes a good commander/soldier out of them.

For that genre of book, it's quite good. I really liked all of the characters, especially the main one, and there's a lot of good work done with not much screen time for many characters. I teared up at several deaths. That being said, I feel like there should be *more* out of something like this. I feel like characters should have some thoughts about the larger climate they're in, especially when there are hints that we should feel bad about the Roman Empire splintering and falling. In combination with there being a grand total of two female characters, only one of whom is allowed to talk, and the demonization of the Druids, I just can't justify giving it more than three stars. I don't regret reading it, I just don't think the genre is for me, and hope that it has evolved in the time since Sutcliff to be much more aware of the time periods it's set in.
79 reviews
August 1, 2022
Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquvila had a decision to make now that he was thrust into the leadership position after the death of his commander at their post in the German frontier. He decided to leave the post and take everyone to safety. This was the wrong choice later decided by his superiors and now he was given a new command of a band of men in the northern part of Brittania. They were called the Frontier Wolves! He had to start from scratch to earn their trust and acceptance. He had to learn about the land he was responsible for controlling and the tribes who lived there. This didn't happen overnight and there were a lot of learning curves. He became a friend of the new chief of the strongest tribe in the area and hunted with the chief. They got his wolf pelt and were finally seen as the true leader of his men. Life was going along really well until a new Roman military commander came for an inspection who didn't know anything about the land or the tribes. Mistakes were made and bad decisions too. Now, he had to abandon his post again with his men, but it was the right decision this time and they had to fight all their way to get to safety. These are the stories of Alexios, his men and how they finally made it to safety. As people say, war is hell.
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