It is the middle of the fifth century, though you would have to know that on your own, as there is no indication in the book, and the Roman Empire is coming to an end. For Rome the benefit of maintaining its long-term occupation of Great Britain is no longer worth the cost and it withdraws its forces. Aquila, an 18-year-old Roman soldier, having lived his entire life in Britain deserts the Roman army only to be instantly subdued by the first invasion of Saxons. In this book, Saxons are brutish vikings, and despite the fact they are to become the forebears of the Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain, they are described as not much more than seafaring guerillas. Written ostensibly as a children’s book in 1959, and winner of many awards, now more than half a century later, The Lantern Bearers can be difficult to penetrate. It presumes mastery of mid-century British language interspersed with working knowledge of early British history. As historical fiction runs, this one is not all bad, but by today’s standards the characters are thin and the plot more than a little contrived.
The Arbat is a Moscow neighborhood; its children are the teens and twenty-somethings caught up in Stalin’s increasingly repressive communism of the 1930s. These youth are generally supportive of the socialist ideals that brought communists to power in the years when they were born, are anxious to uplift of the proletariat and at the same time enjoy the vices and virtues of cafes, restaurants, and urban nightlife. One of their own, however, Sasha Pankratov, is exiled to Siberia on charges that are unfairly enforced by a mid-level government apparatchik. Stalin is portrayed throughout as an increasingly paranoid and unstable megalomaniac. Sasha’s friends blindly feel their way into an increasingly uncertain future — the rule of law is vanishing, Germany is increasingly militaristic, government is less trustworthy — and Sasha must decide how to make meaning with what is left of his life in a world with other exiles surviving among Siberian peasants. Rybakov wrote this book while still under communist rule and released it just as perestroika was first opening the USSR. My mother’s Russian immigrant friend was a child of the Arbat and says the book is spot on accurate.