The Winter King
By Bernard Cornwell
St. Martin’s Press
Quick disclosure — I adore Arthurian legend and will read almost anything that promises a story with Arthur and the knights of the round table. I have to admit, this book did not disappoint.
The Winter King is narrated by Derfel, a Saxon born ward of Merlin and a warrior in Arthur’s army. He tells the tale for Igraine, Queen of Powys, who is his patron. He begins the long tale at the Tor, Merlin’s home, when Mordred is born, the grandson of Uther Pendragon and the eventual leader of Dumnonia. Years of invasion, fighting, and suffering follow which he describes in detail.
As a child, Derfel yearns to become a warrior and, years later, is granted his wish by Arthur. After proving his worth and loyalty, Derfel finds himself serving directly under Arthur. He travels across Britain fighting for the peace Arthur believes he can bring to the land. He eventually finds himself titled Lord Derfel and disagreeing with many of Arthur’s ideas, yet, he fights anyway in the hope that the much wished for peace will come. It is also his friendship and admiration for Arthur that keeps him fighting, if for nothing else.
Cornwell brings to life the dramatic fights, the grisly life, and spoils and indecency of war. He does not shirk from the brutality and blood and, if you happen to be squeamish, he may not be the author for you. I mean that in a very good way. He brings you into the fight, you hear the clanging of swords, smell the men, and feel the pain. He holds nothing back from the way he describes the lifestyles of the individuals, the rituals of the numerous religions, and the fighting itself. It is brutal, disgusting, and above all, fantastic.
What I truly enjoyed about this book was the fact that it was told from an observer’s point of view. I know Arthur and his tale, but to hear it from Derfel makes it fresh and interesting. I feel sometimes that I have read the same story over and over and this one felt very different. In fact, it made me want to read books two and three in the series. I want to listen to Derfel finish his tale and I want to know more about these brutal people.
One drawback, there is an incredibly long list of characters in this book. Sometimes it can be hard to keep them straight but that didn’t take much away from the story for me. Although, at times, it can be confusing since many of the spellings are similar. After you get into the story, the traits make each character unique, plus there is a list in the front of the book that is useful when you need to remember who someone is.