Backlist Burndown Review: The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
Narrator: Jonathan Keeble
Series: The Warlord Chronicles #1
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on April 15th 1997
Length: 19 hours 55 minutes
Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade, As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the enemy at the gates, Arthur is embroiled in a doomed romance with beautiful Guinevere. Will the old-world magic of Merlin be enough to turn the tide of war in his favour?
So Bernard Cornwell is one of those authors that I have wanted to read for a while, but when comes time to pick my next read, I tend to be terribly biased towards speculative fiction. So, when I was trying to scrounge up a book to fit my last square (Arthurian Fantasy) for r/fantasy Bingo, I saw a number of people recommend Cornwell’s The Winter King, I thought it was a great chance to cross off an author I’ve been meaning to try as well as cross off my final Bingo square.
Now, here’s the thing. I almost feel like I can’t give a fair review for how this book holds up in relation to Arthurian legend, namely because I feel shockingly ignorant about it. I would love to be able to provide some detailed analysis about how the characterizations hold up to or contrast with stereotypical legends on the topic, but seeing as how I’m clueless and all, it’s not going to happen. I may recognize a name here and there (like, oh say Merlin or Lancelot or King Arthur), but I really don’t have a foundation past name recognition.
So, what I can tell you is what I enjoyed about the story in and of itself, in the way I would if it was not tied to or based on anything else. And with this, it does well. Very well, actually.
One of the things I found interesting is that this story is not told from the perspective of Arthur, or Merlin, or Guinevere, but rather from Derfel. Derfel is not a character to make the history books and have legends told of him. He is soldier, a common man who happens to befriend Arthur. It felt both a bit unusual as well as almost refreshing to get the perspective from someone more on the outside, someone who is not really central to the story, but happens to be in the midst of it none the less. It is an onlookers perspective.
Cornwell does an incredible job with characters, giving them complexity and motives. At no time did I feel like I was reading about legends, because quite frankly legends often feel like fantasized caricatures rather than fully realized people. These characters felt like people that just happened to have extraordinary circumstances to make an intriguing tale. As for a speculative fiction slant, honestly this seemed more straight up historical fiction, with Merlin being a druid rather than a magic throwing sorcerer (Apologies if I am off base here, like I said, my Arthurian Legend knowledge is embarrassingly scant. But I did always think of Merlin as being a wizard or magician of some kind). But I don’t bring that up as a complaint. The story was very well done, just don’t go into it expecting much in the way of magic or sorcery.
Overall, definitely happy with my choice for both Backlist Burndown and my Arthurian Fantasy this month. Cornwell has definitely earned all of the recommendations and praise I have heard so far.
I have challenged and committed myself to reading at least one book from my backlist every month and posting the review on the last Friday of the month. I invite anyone interested to join me and link up their own Backlist Burndown reviews. I will offer the link at the bottom of my monthly Backlist Burndown reviews, and also will keep a running record of the reviews on my Dracarys! Backlist Burndown page available from my top menu.