When the Roman empire withdraws its troops from Britain, they leave a land in chaos. Vortigern, a name meaning “proud tyrant”, seizes control of the land from Uthr Pendragon, who is banished to Brittany. When Uthr returns, he is killed in battle, leaving his son Arthur as heir to the throne of Britain. Previously, Arthur had imagined himself as an insignificant bastard, but learning that he is Uthr’s son gives a whole new dimension to his dreams. Newly included in those dreams is Gwenhwyfar, the young daughter of his father’s ally Cunedda. Gwenhyfar pledges herself to him when he accepts the throne as heir. Winning Britain back is destined to be an uphill battle, but Arthur shows strength, tenacity, and smarts in his attempts to educate himself and get his legacy back.
Helen Hollick has made it pretty clear that she’s thrown out the Arthurian legends and attempted to re-imagine this as it really would have been, using the original Welsh poems. I think that’s awesome. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arthurian literature, but it’s not actually ever historical fiction, it’s just a literary tradition. I think it’s neat to put Arthur in a rougher context, and since there are so few sources relating to this period, the author has free reign and she really uses it to her advantage.
I liked this story. It feels huge. The book is long and many, many events occur within its pages, but it felt like an epic and I love epics. It’s a great mix between battles and more intimate goals and dealings of the heart. Tons of scheming goes on and I think Hollick gets across the nature of the changeable early middle ages especially well. I loved that some of the Britons thought that the Romans were coming back especially. They must have thought that given that the Romans had been ruling in Britain for hundreds of years. Who was to guess that the abandonment would have been so complete? The mixture between Christianity and paganism was interesting. Christianity didn’t “arrive” in Britain for several hundred years after this, but I’m sure there must have been devotees left from the Roman occupation. Overall, I think the stage is set very well for this sort of story. No one quite knows what to do, but they know they want power, and they’re all fighting for it.
When you throw Arthur and Gwenhwyfar into the mix with real figures from history, however shadowy, it makes for a fantastic story like this one. Both the protagonists go through a lot just to be together and their dominance is hard-won. I love the interpretation of Arthur as a tough guy, not a gentle chivalric knight who turns the other way when his wife starts cuckolding him (there is no Lancelot here, fyi, if you’re looking for him). He fights for what he wants, I’m sure this Arthur would have had Lancelot’s head rotting on a stick. And as for Gwenhwyfar, she is a powerful and inspiring woman in her own right here who grows from a lovely tomboy into a woman who isn’t afraid to defend herself and her family. They both have their moments of weakness, but it makes those moments of strength even stronger.
I do recommend this. It’s a fascinating re-imagining of Early Medieval Britain and gives the Arthurian legend a boost. If you enjoy historical fiction, I think you should read this. I for one am looking forward to the next two installments of the trilogy.
The Kingmaking comes out on March 1st. Preorder it on Amazon.
(As an addendum, I would just like to say that I don’t believe King Arthur actually existed – if he did, he wasn’t a king – and thus historical fiction written about him is free from all accuracy requirements I normally apply to historical figures. I can just enjoy it as a good book like this one!)
If you want to hear more opinions and read more interviews and guest posts from Helen, check out these other blogs throughout this week and next:
Harriet Devine’s Blog
Lazy Habits of Thinking interview 2/27
Carpe Libris Reviews
Historical Novels Book Reviews
Lilly’s Reading Extravanganza guest blog 2/25
Books Are My Only Friends 2/25
Peeking Between the Pages 2/26 and guest blog 2/27
We Be Reading 2/26
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature 2/26
Books Thoughts by Lisa 3/1
S. Krishna’s Books 3/1
Jennifer’s Random Musings 3/1
Passages to the Past 3/2
The Tome Traveller 3/2
Medieval History, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Writing Fiction 3/2
Savvy Verse and Wit 3/2 and interview 3/3
A Striped Armchair 3/3
Carla Nayland’s Blog 3/3
A Reader’s Respite 3/3 and interview on 3/5
Library Queue 3/4
The Bookworm 3/4
My Friend Amy 3/5
Sam’s Book Blog 3/5
Good Books, Bright Side 3/5
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time 3/6
Susan’s Art and Words 3/6