REVIEW: The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

REVIEW: The Winter King by Bernard CornwellThe Winter King (The Warlord Chronicles #1) by Bernard Cornwell
Published: St. Martin's Griffin (1995), Hardcover, 448pg
Source: Library
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

It takes a remarkable writer to make an old story as fresh and compelling as the first time we heard it. With The Winter King, the first volume of his magnificent Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell finally turns to the story he was born to write: the mythic saga of King Arthur.

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. (from Goodreads)

Challenges: Arthurian Challenge 2009-2010 (#5)

My friend recommended me this book after I talked to her about the Kevin Crossley-Holland novels, and I thought it sounded interesting enough that I should give it a go. I was hoping to love it, since taking recommendations from IRL friends always runs the risk of not liking a book and then what do you do– pretend you never read it? Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about that because I did love The Winter King and I’ve dodged another awkward bullet once more.

Oh! And, slight warning: this is less a composed review and more like random thoughts about what I liked re: the book. It’s a very large book, with too many things in it that, while I’d love to talk about them, it’d make the review, like, fifty pages long. And since I don’t feel like writing an essay I cut out a lot of stuff out. 😀 But I hope what I’ve left in is enough to make you want to read The Winter King, because it’s awesome!

There’s a lot that goes on in The Winter King, and a lot of things are changed from the traditional myths. While in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s novels he tried to stick in whatever he could, Bernard Cornwell takes the essence of the Arthurian mythology and twists it a little bit. Relationships between characters– Mordred is Arthur’s brother, not his son; Galahad is Lancelot’s brother, etc– certain events (the Excalibur thing, Arthur marrying Guinevere), even character histories are changed. It’s much less Christianized and much more Druid-y, though there’s some interesting clashes between the two religions that I haven’t read about before. I really liked picking out what Cornwell did differently and trying to figure out what that means for the world of The Winter King.

The characters were definitely the best part of the book for me. There were some really exciting fighting scenes, of course, and the religion-philosophical questioning bits were fine, but I loved the characters. Arthur actually has a personality! He’s charismatic and idealistic and a bit foolish, but he’s also a really good fighter and loves his people. That’s such a nice change from Arthurs who don’t do anything except sit on their thrones and send other knights out to do stuff for them. This Arthur is proactive, and it’s great.

I liked Galahad a lot, too, and I don’t think I’ve ever liked Galahad in anything else I’ve read him in, so that was surprising. Merlin reminded me of a Druid Sherlock Holmes, almost, with that intense disregard for everything but what he’s interested in. Nimue, too, was intense, but in a creepy way. I liked her, but it was hard to understand her sometimes. I didn’t like Guinevere, but that’s nothing new since I think the recent trend is to have her be almost a harpy? And this Guinevere is kniving and clever and I don’t think she loves Arthur, and the way she’s written it’s almost impossible to like her. I feel kind of bad for modern-version Guineveres because they get no slack; but then, it’s hard to like a character who cheats on a nice dude like Arthur.

And of course I liked the narrator, Derfel, but I almost found him secondary in comparison to everyone else in the book. He’s got some nice lines– very funny ones, actually– and it was good to see how the Arthurian characters were from an outside perspective.

I almost don’t really want to talk about any of the actual plot because I think you need to read it for yourself to get the full effect. It’s really intense, and some parts were disgusting and depressing, and I would not want to live in England back then (especially since I’m a woman), what with the raping and the pillaging and such. Bah. But! Okay, yes, DO read this if you have any interest in Arthurian stuff or just really excellent historical fiction, because it’s super enjoyable (if you can get over the disgusting bits) and really excellently written.

There’s so much more that I could write about it, but a) they’re spoilers and b) you really need to read the awesome things for yourself instead of reading me telling you about all the awesome things here. But it’s really, really good.

Read: November 2009

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