I had to specially reserve this sort-of sequel to The Eagle of the Ninth from the library as it was not as readily available as its predecessor and is much less well-known. I was curious as to why, and while I can’t articulate it very well, it’s obvious that The Eagle of the Ninth is the far better book. Marcus and Esca are more interesting characters, it must be said, than Flavius and Justin, with that added frisson because of their different backgrounds; in the abstract, the political story behind The Silver Branch is interesting but far less compelling and timeless than the mysterious search at the heart of Eagle of the Ninth. Also Eagle of the Ninth feels more confidently told, especially as regards the action sequences. However, The Silver Branch provides arguably better female characters.
The Silver Branch takes place a few generations after The Eagle of the Ninth, though Marcelus Flavius Aquila is a descendent of Marcus (and, presumably, Cottia). The story is set mainly in modern-day York, featuring the Emperor Carausius, the son of a German father and a Hibernian (Irish) mother and originally a Scaldis (Scheldt) river pilot. Marcelus comes from the same soldiering/farming background as his ancestor, but Justin (Tiberius Lucius Justianus) is a young and slightly timid legionary surgeon. Both are sympathetic young men who meet by chance and discover they are cousins.
They have a variety of adventures before being exiled into service on Hadrian’s Wall from which they have to flee after Carausius is killed in a coup. In their attempt to get back to Gaul, they end up as part of a spy ring in Portus Adurni (Portchester) which is also composed of a boat-builder, Phaedrus of the Berenice, a government clerk in the Corn Office at Regnum, and an old woman who sells flowers outside the Temple of Mars Toutate at Clausentium, among others. Eventually they have to go to war against the usurper and his Saxon allies.
A character known only as Manlius’ wife has a short moment of glory in the part of a strong, smart, and brave woman; more to the point is Flavius’ imperious Aunt Honoria. I feel sure The Silver Branch would have made a better novel had it been told from her point of view. As she tells her nephew, “But then, I have always hated to be out of the way when things happen.” Flavius’ farm, though it becomes the headquarters of the spy ring, is woefully under-sketched. Flavius insists they have always used free labor on it; it is the same spot where his ancestor Marcus, we presume, once lived. “The farm is always pleased to see the people it is fond of, and who are fond of it. You can feel it being pleased—like an old wise hound.”
It has clearly long been a favorite device of writers to view Christianity as seen through Roman eyes; it yielded hilarious results in Ruso and the Root of All Evils and poignantly informed “The Romans” (of Doctor Who fame). The Silver Branch is no exception, including a pointedly compassionate soldier named Centurion Anthonius. “It was something to do with a man called the Christos,” Justin notes, after having seen Anthonius draw a fish in the sand. “A man who had been executed more than two hundred years ago: but it seemed that he still had followers. You would need to be a good leader, Justin thought suddenly, for people to follow you still, two hundred years afterward.”
Unfortunately, the silver branch of the title doesn’t seem to relate to much—it’s the musical instrument of a mysterious and frankly strange Irish bard and professional jester.