The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
Genre: Historical-fiction, Adult
Series: The Warlord Chronicles #1
Published: 1996 by Penguin Books Ltd
The tale begins in Dark Age Britain, a land where Arthur has been banished and Merlin has disappeared, where a child-king sits unprotected on the throne, where religion vies with magic for the souls of the people. It is to this desperate land that Arthur returns, a man at once utterly human and truly heroic: a man of honor, loyalty, and amazing valor; a man who loves Guinevere more passionately than he should; a man whose life is at once tragic and triumphant.
As Arthur fights to keep a flicker of civilization alive in a barbaric world, Bernard Cornwell makes a familiar tale into a legend all over again.
This book my friend has bugged and pestered me to read for absolute months, along with a tonne of other books so she can finally find somebody to discuss books with and because I read a little bit of everything and I’m unable to say no, I finally got around to picking this one up. I’m only glad for the extra encouragment and can safely say I wasn’t tossing this book aside as something I wanted to forget. It was also entertaining to read this book as part of a read along, which pushed me to read this book and not leave it lying around for a few weeks. For the book may be engaging, but I felt like at times there was the greatest possibility that I could put the book down and come back to it. It just didn’t hold the push throughout the whole novel to keep reading all the time. However, at around 500 pages that would be a pretty mean feat for Cornwell to achieve.
Arthurian legends are certainly one of my favourite genres encompassed within the historical fiction genre. There are lots of different interpretations and questions surrounding Arthur and whether he was even real and once again, Bernard Cornwell brought a fresh view from the previous Arthurian legend books I’ve read.
It certainly stands out as different and unique, with a prose told from the perspective of old Derfel looking back unto his youth with his experience of being born a Saxon boy, who’s thrown into a death pit and survives. Then he rises against the odds to become one of Arthur’s men, and this is just the very beginning. We go on to accompany Derfel through a maze of twists and turns, deceits and upheaval on his quest to serve Arthur. Following the perspective of Derfel really broadens the understanding of the kingdom’s workings and looking through Derfel’s eyes allows us to connect with other characters that we may not have necessary seen from the view of Arthur and witness events in the kingdom that may go unseen by the eyes of “royalty.
“Derfel Cadarn: The narrator, born a Saxon, ward of Merlin and one of Arthur’s warriors”
Cornwell introduces us to a lot of characters very quickly and all the Saxon names and positions can definitely become confusing, but the character glossary at the start of the novel really helps to ease the confusion of the numerous characters and their positions so you can draw the connecting lines to family connections.
The novel is split into five different parts and there are no chapter titles or labels as such, the chapters are incredibly long stretching from 20 to 50 pages. So I’d suggest if you plan to read this novel, make sure you have plenty of time on your hands because it’s difficult to slip from the storyline mid-chapter without falling out of the story. Nevertheless I felt this was a highlight of the novel because you became so immersed in the tale that you didn’t want to put it down and generally I found myself reading a least a whole part which was generally made up of two chapters.
The secondary characters that fall behind Derfel all have a strongly built history and characterisation to their person, which makes them equally entertaining. Merlin, Arthur and Nimue were three of my favourites and Arthur and Nimue become a central part of Derfel’s life and their relationships are certainly entertaining. Merlin didn’t appear much in the story for the “ancient magician” but his appearances served to prove humerous. He was to put it bluntly a “batty old man” and for those of you that might have watched the BBC’s production of Merlin, he reminded me of the old man that Merlin transforms himself into.
“The cat!’ Merlin explained. ‘I can’t abandon the cat! Don’t be absurd!’
‘For the Gods’ sake, Lord!’ I yelled at him, but Merlin was scrabbling under the table to retrieve the frightened grey cat that he cradled in his arms…”
Merlin wasn’t the only point of humour and whilst much of Cornwell’s time might have been spent discussing tactics, betrayals and quests and the gruesome gore of battle, he did have time to inflect some humour into his story. Humour is definitely a point of appreciation for me, so seeing elements of it brought into Cromwell’s historical fiction pleased me, not quite enough to astound me, but it made it thoroughly enjoyable.
“Arthur, despite Uther’s denial at Levum, was the son of the High King, though there was small advantage to be gained from that patronage for Uther fathered as many bastards as a tom cat makes kittens.”
If you’re worried that you might not like this book because it doesn’t have enough Arthur, fear not, we get plenty of him in all his glory and it’s nice to admire him from afar, but I think viewing the book from Derfel’s perspective dampened my connection to him as a character because it was overshadowed by his relationship with Derfel. Despite this, the book is definitely not a romance tale of Arthur’s love for Guinevere or Derfel’s adventures, most of all it documents the events of this time of Arthur rising to take control of the kingdom.
This book leaves the tale of Arthur far from finished and whilst we aren’t held on a particular cliff-hanger, I definitely want to know what the future holds in store and where Cornwell will be taking us on in the next instalment of this series. If you like historical fiction then this book is definitely for you, but if you’re looking for a swoony romantic tale of Arthur, then this book is probably not for you.
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