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The Warlord Chronicles
Volume One The Winter King
Volume Two Enemy of God
Volume Three Excalibur -- forthcoming
Bernard Cornwell
St. Martin's Press

The Winter King
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Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe Series
Sharpe Information Page
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

When I stumbled across The Winter King, I thought Oh goody, another Arthur series. Just what the world needs. Maybe there'll be vampires in it and everyone will be happy and we can finally move on to something else. But I read it anyhow. I'm a sucker for a good tragedy, and it's hard to beat the story of Arthur for good tragedy. So I read it. And I loved it.

The angle for this version of the story is that one of Arthur's warlords, also a close personal friend, is now an old man living in a monastery, long after Arthur's demise. At the request of a young idealistic queen, he is relating the story of Arthur. Not the legend, mind you; the real story. The cold hard truth, warts and all. Of course, with this story-within-a-story, the truth we're getting is one man's somewhat biased interpretation of the cold hard truth. That doesn't matter though, because we like the narrator. He's not perfect, but he's a good-hearted man.

With regard to the "truth" Cornwell seems to have done his homework. He freely admits to a few anachronisms in the Author's Note, but I was inclined to forgive them (mostly because I wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't pointed them out to me). Cornwell paints us a gruesomely vivid picture of what life must have been like in the 5th to 6th centuries. We are shown a Britain divided by Britons and Saxons, with Rome's shadow fading rapidly, and a Britain divided by pagans and Christians, with the ghosts of Rome's mystery cults (Mithras, Isis, and hints of others) still haunting the landscape. He gives us the terrible brutality of battle, glorifying it only as much as the story demands. He gives us the hardships of daily life, with its joys and its sorrows, its laughter and its pains, petty annoyances and cruel vengeance.

As expected, you'll meet a whole cast of familiar characters. However, you may find some of them in unfamiliar roles, particularly if your experience of Arthurian legend is limited to sources dating back no further than Malory. A recurring phrase in the second volume is "Fate is inexorable." It is not, however, entirely predictable. I knew I was reading a tragedy, but sometimes I was surprised at where the muse struck.

Cornwell does an excellent job of working within the framework of a well-known story without ever seeming to be constrained by it. With the art of a truly inspiring writer, the author seems to let the story guide him without letting it take over entirely. Maybe the story of Arthur is so archetypal that it tells itself, but in this incarnation of the story, the credit belongs entirely to Cornwell.

As an added bonus, Cornwell seems to know how to handle a series. I despise cliff-hanger endings between the volumes of a series. No worries of that in The Warlord Chronicles. Both The Winter King and Enemy of God leave the reader at a satisfying resting spot, despite an awareness that it's not all over yet.

So if you're a fan of good writing, a fan of Arthurian legend, or a fan of historical fiction, I would recommend The Winter King and Enemy of God. Sorry, no vampires though, so far.

Copyright © 1997 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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