As a little boy, Derfel is accepted into Merlin’s keeping after surviving a Druid’s attempt to kill him. On the Tor, he has a first-hand view of the events that occur as Uther, the old High King, slides into death, and a Council must be chosen to guide the kingdom through his grandson Mordred’s childhood. At the head of the Council is, of course, Arthur, and so another imagining of the Arthurian legend begins. The story is framed by an elderly Derfel, who has converted to Christianity and become a monk. The elderly Derfel is recording the story of his life, and consequently Arthur’s, for posterity and for the entertainment of Igraine, a queen of the Britons.
Cornwell, of course, puts his own spin on things. He uses many of the characters from the oldest Arthurian legends, of which one is Derfel, but freely interposes later creations like Lancelot at will. He’s not trying to imagine the origins of the legend, but put another spin on them, so most of the basic plot is there. Despite that, he changes things, like Lancelot’s character, and then shows how the origins of the later tales may have been totally off-base. In that sense, the book plays on the origin of myths, which I find particularly interesting. He also makes Arthur a warlord, not a king, which I like a lot. Even if Cornwell isn’t trying to create a possible reality, it’s my opinion that the real life Arthur, if he existed, was in fact a warlord, so I’m enjoying this version of the legend with that in mind.
Another aspect of Cornwell’s writing that I always enjoy is that he is very skilled at placing his reader right into the correct time period. This book calls up the fifth century better than any other I’ve read. The Romans have fled, and the Britons and Saxons are at war with each other. The Saxons will inevitably win, as history tells us, but Arthur’s push against them is the Britons’ last stand. In The Winter King, it’s easy to feel the difference between crumbling but beautiful Roman buildings and the cruder British or Saxon wood forts and halls. It’s easy to feel like civilization has fled from these people even as they live among the reminders of it, though Cornwell allows us to also appreciate the fact that the British way of life has been driven out by the Romans. It’s all a fascinating mesh and he places the reader right into the middle of it, like you’re walking alongside the characters. This is one of his greatest strengths. The only problem is that he sometimes introduces anachronisms into the characters’ speech that sometimes jolt me out of the setting. This only happens a few times, but it’s enough that I only gave it four and a half stars on LibraryThing instead of five.
I will admit that I found the first hundred or so pages of this book very boring. Arthur doesn’t appear in them and Derfel, our narrator, is a little boy. I’ve discovered lately that I struggle with many books or movies that have children as their focus (I don’t know why), and so I struggled with the beginning of this one, and dreaded the fact that the entire trilogy was on my TBR pile already. In fact, I could hardly see how this book was going to tie into what I know of the legend at all. When Arthur arrived and Derfel began to grow up, the book snapped into place for me. Pieces of the legend emerged into the picture and I decided I liked Derfel. All of Cornwell’s heroes are similar, but I like them all, so I’m not going to complain. I find I like Derfel more than Uhtred or Thomas of Hookton because he seems more human and because his older incarnation is extremely entertaining.
Most of this book does seem concerned with building up to the main part of the legend. There are aspects of it, but we’re not into the ever-familiar Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere triangle yet. Characters are being built and the groundwork is being laid, but by the end I loved it and headed for book two only a day later despite my ARC TBR pile and the fact that the book ends with a sort of conclusion.
I’ll definitely be recommending this book and I expect I’ll be finishing the trilogy very soon. I love it! Buy this book on Amazon.