"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

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