If Eagle of the Ninth
is the story of learning that there's no going back, The Lantern Bearers
is the story of struggling to find a way forward. Except instead of Marcus, with his "kingfisher summer" of friends and quintessential resilience, we have Aquila, by far the darkest, brooding, and least nice of Sutcliff's heroes.
This is a hard book to read. Even when Aquila starts to find small scraps of joy on a personal level, there's still the inescapable fact that this is the twilight of the age--and not a quiet, elegiac twilight, but one heralded by smoke and blood. We go straight from this book to the Arthurian book, after all, and no one opens an Arthurian novel expecting a happy ending.
But it's a beautiful book, too. I think my favorite part of this one is the way Sutcliff draws the lives of women. They're tangential to the story, appearing only along the edges, and the main character is often pretty frank in his disregard for them, but even as the men dismiss them it's very clear that they don't dismiss themselves, that they have their own hopes and dreams and world, just out of our sight. (The one exception is Rowena; I could have happily done without that particular trope.)
I have no idea why this book--which spends more time following its protagonist in his 30s than in his teens--is classified as YA. But it is, and I loved it as a teen, so apparently the publishers were on to something.