By Bernard Cornwell
St. Martin’s Press
The third book in the warlord trilogy, Excalibur follows Arthur to the end of his tale. Derfel, the narrator, is finishing the story for Queen Igraine of Powys, his patron, and reminiscing about a life lived and how the smallest things can change a life forever.
In Excalibur, we find Arthur at peace with the world. He has helped to install Mordred as king, and while his reign is anything but just, Arthur has kept his oath to see him placed on the throne. During this time of hesitant peace — Saxons are gathering and people are expecting another battle — Merlin believes it is time to bring the gods back to the land. Everyone is gathered, Pagan and Christian alike, to watch Merlin summon gods of the old world. He fails and the blame falls on Arthur who would not allow his son, Gwydre, to be sacrificed for the gods. Soon after, the Saxons invade.
The invasion is the largest yet and the Saxons have come not just to intimidate but to conquer. Past wars have been rather quick but this time Arthur guesses wrong about where the enemy will make its stand. He gets cut off from his forces and the Saxons mount an impressive siege, trapping Derfel and his men who were to meet with Arthur. Arthur does arrive with reinforcements and the ensuing battle is long and harsh. He prevails, driving the Saxons out once more. Mordred is left a king without powers but a king nonetheless. And against his wishes, Derfel is named to rule Dumnonia and Arthur, newly reunited with Guinevere, retreats to Siluria to live the quiet life he has always wanted. They all become content and this is when their enemies rise.
Arthur and Derfel wanted peace and quiet, time with their wives, children, and grandchildren. When news comes of Mordred’s approaching death after being wounded in battle far from home, they begin planning for Gwydre to become ruler of Dumnonia. Mordred, unfortunately, is far from death and returns with a warband intent on killing rivals and anyone who caused him pain in the past. He plans to take the power and rightful kingship he feels he was denied.
While reading, there were times when I needed to remind myself this wasn’t Derfel’s story but Arthur’s. Their lives, fortunes, and wars are so intertwined that you can almost see them as one story. Derfel, in his telling, reminds you that it is Arthur and intentionally leaves out information he isn’t comfortable speculating on which sometimes can be annoying. For instance, Queen Igraine wants to know how Arthur and Guinevere were reunited and what happened. He tells her only what he knows — that they spoke together after the battle of Mynydd Baddon where the Saxons were defeated. You want to know more too but he doesn’t add that information, telling only the story he knows. This is one of the reasons why I liked this series so much, the character of Derfel. He was honest, true, credible, and so very likable even if he didn’t tell you all you wanted to know. You trusted him to be true to the story and it made it all work in the end.
The ending is true to Arthurian standards and while I won’t disclose it here, it does feel satisfactory if a bit stunted but then again, that is how war and stories sometimes end.