Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell

This is actually the first part of a trilogy, but I felt it worked quite well as a novel on its own - even though the ending sets things up for the story to be continued.

This is a re-telling of the story of King Arthur. Of course, it's been done many times. There are lots of fiction books based on the legend, not to mention books that try to document the truth of the story, as far as possible. And the story's also been told in film; I'm quite partial to the 1981 movie "Excalibur."

Anyway, one thing that struck me about "The Winter King" was the wonderful job it does of telling a story that's been told before, and yet keep it fresh, interesting and dynamic. This is accomplished in a number of ways.

One thing that's neat here is the way some of the characters are portrayed. Cornwell presents them in a way that makes sense and doesn't outright contradict what you'd typically expect, but still puts a creative twist on the characters. Like Sir Lancelot. Instead of the brave knight and strong leader second only to Arthur that a lot of Arthurian retellings portray, this Lancelot is a flake. He's just good at grabbing credit and making himself look good, regardless of whether he's really done very much.

And Guinevere is portrayed as majestic, strong-willed and somewhat manipulative and opportunistic.

Arthur himself is portrayed as having all the qualities he should - a strong leader, charismatic, a great fighter, yet still humble and respectful of others, most of the time. But he does have flaws. His falling in love with Guinevere is impulsive at best, and causes huge problems when he breaks off his previous engagement, or betrothal. The political implications pour gasoline on the political fires that lead to violent conflict.

Also, Cornwell uses his imagination to fill in details about things we don't know much about form the Dark Ages. Druidic religion is something that is very much shrouded in mystery, or so I've been told. The druids portrayed here are believable and seem to fit nicely into the setting. Corwell shows us a religion deeply rooted in nature as well as polytheistic, but the various gods that are worshipped are all closely tied to aspects of real life.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of Derfel, who trains to be a soldier and serves Arthur. Faithful and loyal to Arthur, Derfel also has his own personal story, and goes through considerable growth and development as a person himself throughout the story, he's not just there to relate the events around him.

The plot is very sophisticated, and would take an awfully long time to describe. Much of it centres around Arthur's devotion to Mordred, the infant who is to be king. But until Mordred grows up, Mordred has to be protected - and that's no easy task. Saving Mordred's life proves to be a task that takes considerable skill and wit. I like that, though, Arthur is not just a fighter or the best swordsman, he and his followers have to be constantly thinking ahead, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies.

And I really enjoy the way Cornwell brings the setting to life; his attention to detail will make you feel as if you're right there with Derfel, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of Dark Ages Britain. You'll feel what it's like to try and fight in a heavy suit of armour, or to go through grueling training with a sword, or watch Druids casting spells.

A very enjoyable read - definitely recommended. I'll have to read the rest of this trilogy some time soon.

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