I’m not sure anything else needs to be said about The Warlord Chronicles. A quick look through the reviews section on any store reveals a host of shining praise. But, I’m trying to catch up on my own reviews so here goes.
Essentially, the books are good. Very good.
They detail the life and times of (King) Arthur but are told from the perspective of one of his warriors (Derfel Cadarn) as he looks back from his later life as a monk.
The books chart Arthur’s rise from warlord to something almost like a king. It documents his mistakes and frustrations, his need to do the right thing for the British people (which is usually a sign that something’s got to go wrong), and his mix of generosity and ruthlessness. (A ruthlessness that pales next to that of his wife: Guinevere.)
All of this is set against Cornwell’s evocative backdrop of Dark Age Britain. The detail is woven into the text with meticulous care yet never becomes obtrusive: retting ponds, women constantly spinning wool, the sacrifices, superstitions and omens. In short, their lives. And deaths: disease and, of course, the battles.
The fight scenes are stunning – graphic and realistic (the exhausting sweaty press of the shield wall and the champions’ duels). They never stray into gore for its own sake but don’t shy away from the realities of what the men were facing and what they stood to lose.
There are politics and religious machinations. The most prevalent of which is the ongoing fight between Old Gods and New that is fought by druids and priests and their believers. That age-old struggle culminates in a grisly scene with a cauldron and a death that shocks all the more for it being ‘off-screen.’
And, of course, there is magic. What would you expect with a tale featuring Merlin? Rather than the fantastical type, it is the magic of trickery and deceit, sleight of hand and, essentially, greater knowledge of the world. If you’ll allow me to bastardise Arthur C/ Clarke’s famous phrase —
‘Any sufficiently advanced
technology knowledge is indistinguishable from magic.’
Around all of these things are a cast of characters to both cheer for and jeer at: Uther, Igraine, Arthur, Cai, Lancelot, Guinevere, Aelle, Sagramor, Mordred and many others. These people run the gamut of emotions that make a story worth telling: love and betrayal, hate and revenge, loyalty and wonder.
As I said, the books are good. Very good.
If I had one grudge it would the end of the last book: Excalibur.
MINOR SPOILER ALERT!
Derfel retires to a monastery after his fighting days are over and Arthur has sailed into the sunset. Derfel still has an honest naivety to him, which is both endearing and frustrating. (There was many a time when I wanted to shout at the page for Derfel to open his eyes and see what Bishop Sansum was doing.) That, however, is not my issue: it is Derfel’s uncertain fate. His end is only hinted at. It is a good story telling trick but I would have preferred a solid ending for a man who was Arthur’s rock.
The one consolation to that minor grudge is that Derfel was reunited with Hywelbane in the last few pages. Whether he died with his sword in his hand as the once-pagan warrior would have wished, we will never know.
MINOR SPOILER ALERT OVER!
All in all, The Warlord Chronicles are a fantastic depiction of the Dark Ages, and the life, times and battles of one of Britain’s greatest myths. As with Giles Kristian’s fantastic Lancelot, they are not the quickest of books to read but are beautifully written.
Worth reading. Worth savouring.