"The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell: Book Review

"Enemy of God" is the second installment in Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian Warlord Chronicles. Like "The Winter King" before it, "Enemy of God" is an evocative mixture of all the Arthur legends from hundreds of years past and a fictional tale that Bernard Cornwell uses to breathe life into the old tales.

Like a good lover of cliché tales of honor, deception, war and magic, I have read numerous attempts at weaving this presumably fictional story out of history into a modern historical fiction. I have watched miniseries and feature-length films. Like so many others, I have loved the story since childhood. Never have I been so engrossed in the tale as I am right now. I hardly want to write this, the wish to pick up the third and final installment is that strong. As usual, I digress. Where were we . . . ?

The start of this novel has all of the heroes fighting for a peace that is Arthur's dream. It has Merlin searching for an item that he says will bring the pagan gods back to Britain. In a nod to true history, it has the Christians and their religion of peace fixing to oust the pagans with the utmost violence and treachery. Of course, best of all, it has subtle hints at the original Yoko Ono -- Guinevere -- who broke up the Knights of the Round Table in a way. I always preferred the versions where Guinevere could not be happy with even the most legendary man in Britain, but also had to have the questionable Lancelot. It always seemed more realistic and Cornwell delivers it in an unexpected way.

Well, enough giving away the plot. The loveable and fierce narrator from the first novel is back and as worthy as ever. "Enemy of God" is more Derfel's story than Arthur's. Arthur's trials are experienced through Derfel and Derfel has more than his fair share of challenges. Of all the characters, it is the easiest to connect with him. When Arthur finds it impossible to hate or be vengeful, Derfel is there to satisfy the natural hope for retribution that the reader (okay, me) feels. The realism of Derfel combined with the single-mindedness of Arthur makes for engrossing reading.

Another interesting aspect of "The Winter King" is Bernard Cornwell's use of numerous stories and legends. He borrows from various tales, choosing what suits his version best and making up the rest. Woven into this amalgamation of centuries old Arthur tales is the much tale of Tristan and Iseult. Some of the tale is different, but it is still there as a sweet and then predictably shocking addition. Damned if I was not hoping that little subplot would not turn out the way I knew it would.

This book is thorough. It is entertaining. It has all of the components one wants from a modern tale of King Arthur. I would suggest it to anyone who is an Arthur fan or really anyone who enjoys a good historical fiction novel. Cromwell deserves a pat on the back for this one, if only for managing to write a story using those impossible to decipher Welsh names.

Shelly Barclay

Short Story Review: "Longtooth" by Edgar Pangborn

"Longtooth" by Edgar Pangborn is the first short story in the anthology "Otherworldly Maine." I recently picked up the anthology because it features several short stories by familiar and world famous authors. I had never heard of Edgar Pangborn, but I am glad I gave him a shot. This short story has the simplicity, country feel and eeriness one must demand from a supernatural story set in Maine. One might say that Stephen King set this standard, but Pangborn came first. King just perfected it and gave it a little more perversity, which certainly appeals to the modern reader.

"Longtooth" is the story of two men who find themselves at odds with a creature they cannot explain. They are the only free and living human beings who have encountered this creature. Therefore, they also find themselves at odds with the locals, who understandably think them crazy or lying. The situation would be one of simple Maine yarn spinning, were it not for the fact that the creature's actions have made it appear as if one or both of these men have committed a crime.

Through stories of subtle and brief encounters with the creature -- including its call and the messes it leaves behind -- Pangborn introduces the reader to Longtooth. It has an eerie call that neither man can attribute to local wildlife, despite their familiarity with the creatures that inhabit the local woods. Harp, the man who is particularly tormented by the creature, describes it as ape-like with long teeth. He says it spends most of its time in the trees and eventually comes to the realization that the creature's thoughts are similar to those of a man. It is purposely escaping detection.

There is nothing too gory, too daring or too in your face about "Longtooth." There are no literary theatrics. It pans out precisely as one would expect if something like this story actually took place. There are no heroes. There is no burgeoning love in the face of danger. There is no camaraderie born of necessity. It is just two men against one creature and the word of these two men against every local. Pangborn says through his narrator Ben, "My word is good." and I think he is right.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell

Morgan Le Fay
[Sister of King Arthur]
by Edward Burne Jones

"The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell is a historical fiction novel chronicling King Arthur's rise to legend. It is written from the perspective of a warrior and friend of Arthur named Derfel. Derfel is now a Christian monk, but he is recalling the story of Arthur for Queen Igraine, not to be confused with Arthur's mother Igraine. While political intrigues dot the story and propel its plot, "The Winter King" is very much a story of war, pride, honor and religion.

The core of Bernard Cornwell's story is one of the most popular legends in all of history. In some ways, this makes it easy to draw the reader in. There is something about the magic of Merlin, the heroism of Arthur and the treachery all around them that makes for a good read. However, it is also very easy to make a poor King Arthur story, as evidenced by the many that collect dust on library shelves. Cornwell's "The Winter King" is not such a novel.

From the start, the reader gets a look at a Britain that holds a tenuous power. The lands have been plundered and abandoned by the Romans. The Saxons are an ever-looming threat. Britain is left without a high king when Arthur's father Uther dies, leaving his infant grandson the throne. Naturally, kings vie for that throne and Arthur is sworn to protect it and Mordred, his nephew. The ties that bind the kings of Britain are tenuous and Arthur struggles to hold them together, though he fumbles when he meets his equally legendary lover Guinevere. Merlin makes few appearances, but he is not forgotten by the narrator Derfel. He serves as a reminder that kings do not provide the only conflicts that threaten to destroy Britain. Religion is helping divide Britain's people.

In "The Winter King," Bernard Cornwell introduces the reader to an Arthur who is the right combination of battle-hardened leader and fool. He offers up a Merlin who is both helpful and indifferent. A Merlin set to his own purpose and using the men around him as pawns to that end. This story is everything we love about Arthurian legend and much more. The narrator alone is enough reason to love this book. In fact, Derfel trumps Arthur in many ways over the course of "The Winter King." While he extols the virtues of his dear leader, it is impossible not to see the charm in the simple son of a slave that Bernard Cornwell created to tell Arthur's story from a new perspective.

Shelly Barclay