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

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