on November 3, 2003
I have read most of the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. I have mostly found them a good read being a fan of historical fiction. I was hesitant to read a book on "Aurthurian England" for I have found the hackneyed legends sorrounding Aurthur's myth tiresome. But WOW this is an incredible novel that brings to life a possible historical basis of this sparsely documented time in British history. It is a rich and exciting portrayal of Arthur and plausible explanations of the people and events that brought about the legend of Excalibur. I must say it is the best of his novels I have read so far and am excited about continueing with the series. I have found that those who have not enjoyed this book have been looking for a fantasy novel of a traditional sense about Avalon etc. This is not it.
Forget knights in shining armor performing chivalrous deeds for damsels in distress; forget Camelot and massive castles with gleaming stone turrets and round tables. Bernard Cornwell's "The Winter King" rips a bleak and gritty tale of the legendary Arthur, a realistic rendering of life in Briton's 5th Century, a period of history described as "The Dark Ages" for good reason.
As always, Cornwell's fiction based-in-history is well researched and fast moving. And while the evidence of Arthur is inconclusive, his faithful depiction of Briton's warlords fighting each other, even while the dreaded Saxon's occupy the eastern half of the island, is fact. The ancient Pagan religion vies with the emerging Christianity for mind share of the populace, while Druids and Christian Priests intermingle with no love lost. It's been a couple of generations since the Roman's packed up and left, taking with them, it seems, any semblance of civilization, leaving the natives in awe of their knowledge. The once great Roman roads and cities have drifted into disrepair, and rival tribes raising armies and taxes to battle their brethren drain the land. In this war torn land, Cornwell's Arthur returns from service across the sea in Armorica (France). Arthur is not a king, but a noble and loyal leader sworn to protect the infant and crippled King Mordred, heir to the recently deceased Uther Pendragon, Briton's high king. While admittedly anachronisms, the author includes familiar figures from the legend: Merlin, Galahad, and Excalibur, but Lancelot is a cowardly fraud and Guinevere is a shallow and witchy seductress who inadvertently leads the courageous but naive Arthur into war that never should have been.
While it may take a few chapters to get into the swing of medieval people and place names, this is soon a rousing and bloody tale of politics and war told from the horror of hand-to-hand combat across a shield wall, of sorcerers, witches, priests, and wizards offering sacrifices, curses, and prayers to whichever Gods may be listening at the time. In short, a realistic first chapter in Cornwell's trilogy of a truly tragic hero and the legend that, nearly fifteen centuries later, continues to captivate and fascinate.
on July 8, 2004
I've read my share of Arthurian themed books. The first ones I read, and the ones I still maintain are the best, were those by Mary Stewart. Since reading those I really haven't found any series that I liked.
Until I read this. My freind recommended this to me, saying "The Druids hop around on one foot in this book!" And that got me. (They actually do, in parts)
This book is highly imaginative. And while it does use parts of the later legends that irritate me in books that are marketed for their historical accuracy (yeah right), there is so much creative imagination in this book. The author sticks to the legends, but not so artificially that it's the same as any other series you've read.
Example one that I love:
We know very little about the Druids. But many authors take this fact and either 1)don't include a worthwile description of them or 2)just use a few simple facts that we do know over and over.
Instead, the author uses his knowledge as a scholar to invent some really strange but wonderful things, still managing to keep it realistic.
Another thing I loved in this book was the portrayal of the main three characters: Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenievere. So often you see them as these beautiful, shiny happy people. Not so in this book. They are dynamic individuals. Arthur is still his down to earth self, but he is selfish and rash. Lancelot is beautiful but a total flake and a jerk (the way I always thought he was). And Guenievere. The most dynamic of all. All she wants is to see the world at it's most beautiful, but you can tell that underneath it all is a layer of cold intelligence, a hard iron will.
Anyway, this book was unlike any other I've read. It was completely compelling.. I read it in 3 days.
I'll definetly recommend it over Steven Lawhead, Jack Whyte, Marrion Zimmer Bradley, and most of the others.
on August 24, 2000
This is not your traditional King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur isn't a king, there are no knights and there is no round table. On the other hand, this is a well-written tale of late 5th century Britain. The Romans have gone and chaos reigns politically, socially, and religiously. What real historical record actually exists suggests that a warlord actually lived who led the fight of the celtic Britons against the invading Angles and Saxons. Was this Arthur? We'll probably never know, but Cornwell has taken elements of the traditional Arthur and combined it with what little is known of the period to produce an engrossing and plausible story. Some aspects may disappoint fans of the traditional Arthur. For example, Lancelot is not exactly the great warrior of legend. The book is a page-turner, though. It will hold your interest all the way through. It held mine, anyway. As historical fiction, this is some of the best I have come across. I recommend it highly: 5 stars.
on June 14, 2002
If you are a devotee of Arthurian Legend, be prepared to be surprised. Cromwell weaves a fascinating and highly detailed tale that blows the fairy tale of traditional Arthur to pieces. Arthur will not pull a sword from a stone. Guinevere seduces Arthur away from his betrothed in a sudden elopement. Lancelot is a selfish, narcissistic, spoiled prince. And don't be flipping through the pages looking for Camelot, it doesn't exist. But don't despair! The story unfolds as told through the eyes Derfel, a Saxson slave who rises to the rank of Lord through his service as a warrior. Derfel's telling is earthy and detailed, bringing to life for the reader the gritty realities of day-to-day life as it must have been in this period of history, and this is the most engaging factor of this book. The struggle between the newly emerging Christian religion and the established Druids is a fascinating sub-current throughout the book. Cornwell includes a map of Ancient Britian at the back of the book, which I referred to often and was very helpful in keeping track of "where" the story is taking place, since the names are not familiar to modern day Britain. I found this book to be a slightly dark but enjoyable read.
on October 28, 2010
This is not a review of the novel, but instead of its electronic version and is offered as a caveat to would-be purchasers.
The ebook version of The Winter King is riddled with textual errors, perhaps as a result of having been created using Optical Character Recognition software and certainly for not having been diligently proofread, if it was proofread at all. These errors are a consistent distraction throughout the book, occuring most frequently in proper nouns which, as they recur, do so in a strange and apparently random variety of misspellings ... sometimes within a single sentence.
Additionally, there is no functional table of contents for the Kindle edition and a map meant to be included is not.
Perhaps Penguin will see fit to correct these many errors in a future edition, but as of this review they are an unfortunate and considerable detriment to enjoying the book.
This is not a nice book. This is not a tale of King Arthur of which Disney would approve. It's not romantic, glossy, subtle, or sanitized. There are no chivalrous knights, the kind which spring from the pages of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. There are no lessons of magical shape-shifting as in T.H. White's The Once and Future King. And there are certainly no rites celebrating the strength of female divinity as portrayed in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.
This is a down-and-dirty book. It's brutish, thuggish, full of crude men, cruel battles, harsh realities and bleak futures. Set in the dawn of the Dark Ages, the days when Rome has been crushed, its influences eclipsed and all traces of Roman law and infrastructure are being savagely snuffed out by the sweeping hordes of Vandals and Visigoths, Saxons and Franks, The Winter King is a tale of a time when life is short and one's value is determined, if you're a man, by the strength of your sword arm and, if you're a women, by the power and wealth behind your father's name. It is a story of the one man devoted to peace in this time of chaos. Arthur, some say king of Britain, some say warlord, a man of myth and legend who manages to come to new life between the pages of Cornwell's novel.
Yet, despite the barbaric nature of the story which unfolds in The Winter King, there's nothing gratuitous about it. The opposite, in fact. Everything, from the death of a soldier to the rape of a captive woman to the sacrifice of a prisoner of war is carried out in the most casual, matter-of-fact manner, a method of storytelling which only enhances the tale's sense of realism, giving the narrative a level of depth and gravity missing from many books which glorify the spilling of blood and go into almost gleeful detail whenever degradation or humiliation occur. In this manner, Cornwell accurately and vividly paints a portrait of a land in turmoil, where all traces of Rome's colonization are slowly being eroded, pillaged, buried and forgotten. A land under constant threat from marauders without and treachery within, where your ally today can become your enemy tomorrow for the right amount of gold. A land convulsed by religious dissent just as much as it was by invasion and politics, its Old Gods fighting for supremacy with the new god of the White Christ, pagan against Christian, magic against piety.
Though Cornwell is a talented tale-weaver, there are a couple of nitpicks I have with the book. First off, he tends to repeat himself, giving a description of someone or something only to repeat it a couple of paragraphs later. Now, if the repetition occurred at a greater distance, with the vast and often complex array of place-names, characters and descriptions, that reminder of who rules where and invaded or conspired with which tribe can be a much needed aid. However, even I, the most addlepated of blondes, can remember information long enough not to need a refresher of said information three paragraphs later. Second, the spitting. Everyone. Spits. A lot. Whenever I put the book down for a break, I felt as though I needed to take a bath from all the flying phlegm. Now I'm sure all the spitting, to ward off evil, to seal a curse, to call on lucky spirits, to show disdain, is historically accurate or at least appropriate, but after a while it was just plain gross and distracting. Hell, I would've settled for a few bouts of pissing or defecation in place of the spitting, just to break the mucus monotony.
However, despite those little quirks, which did tend to ease up towards the end of the book, this was a well-written, fast-paced, compellingly-told story. The battle scenes were written in an almost terse manner, revealing the carnage and destruction wrought without reveling in it. The dialogue never felt stilted or awkward, which can sometimes occur in the best of adventure novels, making character interactions feel real and absolutely human. And Cornwell has a deft hand at piecing together the often disparate Roman and Ancient British place names with the even more prehistoric monuments and landscape features, giving the reader an almost tangible sense of that isle's immense history. As much as I've enjoyed reading other interpretations of Arthurian history, those with a feminist slant, those with a more modern, Americanized, "democracy for all" slant, Cornwell's novel is the one which feels as though it were the actual truth, a factual account of this shadowy period of history which somehow became lost to time.
on November 16, 1999
My favourite Arthurian novel was TH Whites 'The Once and Future King'. Having read The Winter King I'm not sure which I prefer now.
The Winter King is a captivatingly well written book that makes the (possible) truth behind the legends come alive in my minds eye. I found the characters to be richly described and believably human.
It was a cruel and unforgiving period in Britains history and the Mallorified view of the period is incredibly distorted. The standard Hollywood image of knights in plate armour is laughable (its about 1000 years too late). This book portrays Post-Romano Britain how it must have been. The early Christian church pushing aside the many pagan religions (or absorbing aspects of their belief). The struggle of Celtic Britons against Saxon and Angle invasion from the east.
This book was thrilling!
Once you've read this you'll HAVE to read the sequels.
on May 9, 2005
I enjoy watching "The Sword in the Stone" and stories about the Round Table and Camelot and Merlin casing magical spells and noble Sir Lancelot as much as the next person. But if you're looking for a believable and historically plausible telling of the Arthurian legend, this is the book to read. Don't get me wrong, Merlin is still here, only he's presented as the most powerful druid left in Britain. Lancelot is here, but isn't nearly as noble as the Lancelot presented in other versions of the tale.
Rather than a story focused solely on Arthur pulling a sword out of a stone, becoming King, and traveling around with Lancelot and Galahad crusading and looking for the holy grail, we're presented with a much more plausible and bleak version of the tale.
The story begins in late 5th century Britain. A land divided into squabbling kingdoms, threatened by multiple forms of invasion (the Irish to the West, the Saxons to the East). Uther, the "High King" is more or less doing his best to keep the kingdoms somewhat united and hoping for an heir. That heir, Mordred, is born at the beginning of the novel. He is born maimed and a council of the kingdoms is called to swear allegiance to Mordred. Following the death of Uther, his bastard son Arthur returns from Armorica (France) to protect Mordred's kingdom until Mordred is old enough to rule it himself.
The focus of this book is war, plain and simple. The Arthur in this book is very noble, wise, kind, and good, but far from perfect. Shrugging off an alliance betrothal in order to marry Guinevere, he all but condemns the kingdoms of Britain to fall apart and fall to the invading Saxons.
The story is narrated by Derfel Cadarn many many years after the fact. Derfel, a monk, was formerly a friend and sort of "lieutenant" to Arthur. There is action, but the story doesn't rely completely on it. The visual descriptions of Britain are very good. Fair warning: There are a lot of names that are hard to pronounce and keep track of at first. I found myself flipping back to the list of names/places at the begining, as well as the map (both extremely handy additions to the book) many times during the first 100 or so pages of the book. The chapters are pretty long, but it's not too hard to find a good stopping point. The book definitely isn't a quick or easy read, but nevertheless a rewarding read.
on June 23, 2006
I was a BIG fan of Cornwell's Grail series. Sorry, but in my opinion, the Grail series was his best, not this one. I'm somewhat less of a fan of this series because they seemed harder to get through than the Grail books. Never the less, I gave this book a 5 star, because it was only after I listened to the other books in the series that I realized just how masterfully Cornwell created his characters in this book.... and the artful way in which he "lived" through them throughout the series. As always, Cornwell sticks to the original story and his research is unsurpassed, but his story telling ability shines here (just as in the Grail series) by choosing a unique point of view for the story teller (a Archer in the Grail series) but I won't ruin the books for you by telling it to you exactly here ... who is "watching" the story unfold and telling it to you... an excellent twist by this Author which makes his stories WONDERFUL. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of Cornwell books out there that I don't like (the Sharp books for one) ... but I LOVE his books set during early English history. This is another SUPERIOR and excellent series about those early times... Also recommend Stonehenge ... very early english history ... an excellent listen.