The Winter King, the first book in the Warlord Chronicles trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, is usually referred to as a fantasy book since it is about the legend of King Arthur but leans more toward the category of historical fiction. Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, and, of course, Arthur, are still featured characters, but the story is not full of magic and is a realistic retelling of the familiar tale. It is similar to what Jack Whyte did with his series the Camulod Chronicles, although Cornwell’s story is completely different, much grittier, and (at least so far) even less fantastic. The Winter King is not at all a traditional fantasy story any more than it is a traditional Arthur story.
Derfel, an old monk who once swore allegiance to Arthur and served in his army, risks the wrath of Bishop Sansum by writing the story of Arthur at his patroness’s request. Since the bishop believes the story of this “enemy of God” should be forgotten, Derfel has to pretend to be translating the Gospel into the Saxon language. Derfel’s story begins with his time as a young man who lived among the many orphans rescued by Merlin. At this time, the High King Uther has fallen ill and his son is dead, so the only hope of a successor is Uther’s grandson, who has not yet been born. The baby, named Mordred after his father, barely survives and is born a cripple, which is considered to be a bad omen. Uther’s bastard son, the warlord Arthur, and other men are sworn into the service of protecting Mordred and ensuring he ascends to the throne when he is of age. Uther’s death leads to civil unrest throughout the land, since there is no High King and many of the kings would like to have that title.
Upon being forced by one of these would-be kings to flee his home at the Tor, Derfel meets and befriends the charismatic Arthur who comes to the rescue of him and the others who had to leave their residence. Once he has made his wish to become a great warrior known to the warlord, Derfel is disappointed when Arthur arranges for him to serve another man, although Arthur promises him that once he has more experience he can be part of his army. Derfel forges his reputation as a mighty warrior, and Arthur keeps his promise, allowing Derfel to observe the political turmoil that surrounds Arthur.
This story of Arthur is not for the faint of heart. It is dark and gritty, full of betrayal and bloodshed. Women are raped, people do die, and body parts are cut off. I have often heard this series compared to George R.R. Martin’s well known A Song of Ice and Fire series for the level of grit involved, and this is a valid comparison. Anyone who tried to read A Song of Ice and Fire and found it too dark and depressing should avoid this book like its pages contain the plague.
Another part of this book that may be daunting to some is a few of the place and people names. They are largely Welsh, and sometimes the consonant to vowel ratio will make you stop and wonder how it can possibly be pronounced. The worst one I came across was “Wynebgwrthucher,” but fortunately that one only appeared the one time.
Those looking for a somewhat traditional account of King Arthur will want to look for a different book. The setting is not medieval – events take place in the 6th century. Arthur is not a king but a warlord. Although he is kind and peace-seeking, he also can be quite rash and selfish, as evidenced by his choice to spurn his betrothed for another, angering her father, one of the kings. Lancelot is not a great warrior but a coward who coerces bards to sing his praises even though he sits on the sidelines during wars and comes home with feigned injuries.
Nimue, Merlin, and other Druids play a strong role, but their powers appear to be nonexistent and feared for superstitious reasons. Spells are cast, but they are always for protection or luck – no one is casting lightning bolts or making any obvious magical modifications to the world despite their dramatic displays.
The book starts out slow, but once Arthur showed up, I felt the story was no longer crawling along. Derfel is a very realistically portrayed and likable character, and Arthur and Merlin (on the few occasions he shows up) are very well-depicted as well.
There was not a cliffhanger ending to this book, but it is obviously not complete since Derfel makes references to events not in this book in his conversations with his patroness at the beginning of each section of his story. I have yet to read the other two books, but it is definitely not a book that feels complete in and of itself, although it is also not a book with an annoying ending that makes you ticked off when you do not have the next book immediately at hand.
The Winter King is recommended to fans of historical fiction or those who would like to read a story about Arthur that really could have happened – as long as they do not mind a lot of grit and blood and enjoy lots of political intrigue and long battles.