Tuesday, February 14, 2012
100 Books #14 - Bernard Cornwell's THE WINTER KING
Zounds, did I enjoy this book.
I've read my fair share of Arthuriana in my day - Le Morte D'arthur, The Mists of Avalon, The Once and Future King, The Quest for the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, The White Raven etc. etc. etc. But never, not even when I was a teenager in love with Lerner & Lowe's Camelot (I grew up listening to the original cast recording with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet), have I been so utterly delighted with it as I've been reading this first book of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy.
What I love is the approach Cornwell took to the material, trying, via his narrator Derfel Cadarn, to depict the "real" story from the point of view of a man who was there and who, as he struggles to put his account into writing, can already see his truths being embroidered into romance and really wishes they wouldn't be.
In other words, this book sort of tries to demystify the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or at least to ground it in reality, but without making it dull, without diminishing it or mocking it. So Arthur is here, but he is the bastard son of the King of Dumnonia (now a part of southwestern England) and a great warlord during the long and bloody Saxon invasion of Britain. And Guinevere is there, but she's the daughter of a client king and not nearly as important as the woman Arthur spurns to marry her. And Pellinore is there, but he's a naked madman in a cage. And Merlin is (barely) there, but he is something between a Druid and a Druid fanboy and spends much of the story off on his own quest after the 13 Treasures that can bring back Britain's good old days (meaning Britain before good old Clau-Clau-Claudius and his Romans made Brittania into a backwater Roman province). And Lancelot is there, but -- oh, I can't even hint at what Lancelot is like, except to say that I laughed my ass off every time his name wound up occurring.
The Winter King concerns itself mostly with war and politics, but there is a little magic and religion, too, but -- and this is my favorite bit, the bit that makes this trilogy look very much to be what I most wanted George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire to be -- Cornwell doesn't care if we believe in it or not. Any spells cast or prayers said are just depicted as weird things that people do (mostly spitting) and any "results" could just be coincidental. The reader is free to interpret it as magic or, more interestingly, as a testament to the power of superstition and the cleverness with which that can be exploited. It's subtly and cleverly done and is a big part of what makes this book such a pleasure to read.
And every single character, whether drawn from history and legend or created for this book, is vivid and unmistakeable. The reader is expected to keep track of a whole lot of them and remember their relationships to each other, as is often the case in, e.g. giant doorstop fantasy series like The Wheel of Time , but here it never feels like work; one barely notices she is doing it, so immersed does the reader become in this lively and believable version of Dark Age Britain. Wow!
But that's not all, of course. There are also the fight scenes. Oh, the fight scenes. Oh, they are glorious, very much the work of a man who has done his homework and thought everything out in great, gory detail. Fans of Shouty Men in Shiny Armour need look no further than this stuff.
Does it count as fantasy? I'm really not sure. Does it count as historical fiction? Not sure there, either. What I am sure it counts as, though, is really off-the-charts-good storytelling.
So yeah, I'm pretty much diving straight into the sequel, Enemy of God, right about... NOW.