‘The Winter King’ by Bernard Cornwell

As I mentioned earlier, it’s been years since I’ve dipped into any books based on Arthurian stories and legends.  Though I loved T.H.White’s Once and Future King, I’ve run across far too many wish-fulfillment and idealised anachronistic sappy pulp fantasy to ever want to revisit the sub-genre of Arthurian fiction.  As many writers and readers are now saying the literary world has vampire fatigue, I myself had Camelot fatigue.  I imagine this is familiar with many Australians with British genetic heritage; there is a sense of past and connection to the Arthurian mythos that many other epic sagas cannot inspire in readers.  It had lead to over-saturation and some very poor retellings (as well, of course, as good ones).

So it took me a while to work up to Cornwell’s saga, and I was astonished when I finally and guiltily picked up my borrowed copy of The Winter King to discover that this series not only works quite hard to maintain historical sustainability of disbelief, but also has a few laughs at the expense of the romantic and dashingly out-of-time notions of knighthood, war and politics.

In The Winter King, there is viscera and spitefulness and awful failings in all the characters.  Merlin, an absent figure for most of the book, is stupendously mad.  Arthur’s ideologies are never set in stone or taught, but shown to evolve and change with time and experience.  I think the most striking thing about the narrative as a whole is the honesty and self-awareness of the narrator, Derfel.  His perspective tints the entire world that we see; he sees things in others that others may not have, observes the effect of war, peace and power-mongering at a level that a more… er… noble… narrator may have been entirely blind to.

I rarely love books this much.  I want to save other observations until I have taken the chance to savour the other two thirds of this series, but as a first instalment in an epic historical fiction trilogy I have come away with a sense of fulfilment and closure that is uncommon in books like this, particularly Arthurian ones.  There is triumph and failure and resolution, a sense of completion even though the storyline clearly has inertia, leading into the next book and making me eager for it.

I think I am maybe a little bit in love with this series, I’ve already got Enemy of God beside me.  Hopefully I’ll have stopped gushing and will have some more useful thoughts on the other two books.


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