A little background before I start my review; this is my first dive into Bernard Cornwell’s work and my second time reading a historical fiction, so this is totally out of my comfort read but I’m delighted with my decision to go out of my usual read. I’ve heard of the name Bernard Cornwell several times until now, all pretty much claimed he’s a legend in ‘Historical Fiction’ genre but nothing ever truly pushed me into starting his books until last March when I finished binge reading the entire ‘The Faithful and the Fallen’ series. Both the series and the author (John Gwynne) since then have been included in my favorites of all time lists. I decided back then to do an interview with Gwynne and one of my questions was:
"If you have to recommend one book or series for everyone, what came into mind and why?”
His answer was 'The Warlord Chronicles' by Bernard Cornwell and that’s how I stumbled upon this series and how I finally decide to give his work a try. Click this link for my full interview with him for anyone who’s interested. http://booknest.eu/component/k2/30-blog/391-interviewjohngwynne
On to the review, even though this is still only the first book out of a trilogy, I can already see why Cornwell is named as a legend in the genre. He managed to make my most disliked narrative, omniscient narrative into something that worked wonderfully.
Told in the similar style with Kvothe from Kingkiller Chronicles, we follow Delfer Cadarn, the main character and the narrator, now old and a monk, recounts his journey with Arthur, his best friend, The King that Never Was, The Enemy of God and the Lord of Battles.
“The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.”
Most of the stories told here took place in the past, going back to the present times only five times in total throughout the entire book. This also means that Delfer pretty much knows all the events that will happen already during his narration and he reminded us over and over again about this with sentences like “it’s not until later that I find out what he meant”. This usually doesn’t work in my fantasy read but damn it worked so well in this story.
The Winter King mostly focused on Arthur’s struggle to unite Britain during the Dark Ages in the midst of Saxon’s inevitable invasion. Cornwell’s retelling of Arthur is magnificent, contrary to usual Arthurian legend; Cornwell erased every magical aspect, at least here anyway. Sure there’s a hint of magic in the world but they’re not actual magic per se, just superstitions that the population back then heavily believed. Cornwell has stated that The Winter King is a tale of the Dark Ages in which legend and imagination must compensate for the lack of history records, as there’s no conclusive evidence on Arthur’s legend and he did it with greatness.
Arthurian legend has always been one of my favorite retelling, it’s been done countless times already in any medium but I’ve never once experienced a retelling as original and fantastic as this one. Cornwell’s storytelling and prose qualities are top notch. So much emotions were felt and delivered throughout my times reading this, thought provoking and realistically poignant such as this
“And at the end of life, what does it all matter? We grow old and the young look at us and can never see that once we made a kingdom ring for love.”
or philosophical like this:
“But fate, as Merlin always taught us, is inexorable. Life is a jest of the Gods, Merlin liked to claim, and there is no justice. You must learn to laugh, he once told me, or else you'll just weep yourself to death.”
Not only the storytelling and prose are fantastic, Cornwell’s versions of the characters that we’ve known in the legend are very unique. Arthur in particular is amazing, felt like a real person that truly existed in the past despite this being written as a historical fiction. Also, a huge plus in originality towards Lancelot and Guinevere, for they have completely take on a direction that I never thought I would ever see in their character.
Do note however that this is a slow pace book, we only get a little taste of Cornwell’s big battle scenes (another factor that he’s highly praised for) in the last 60 pages of the book, if you love Shield-Wall, you’re going to love the battle scenes for sure.
Honestly, this could’ve been an easy 5 star book for me if it wasn’t for the first half of the book. The minor con I had with the book is that during the first half, the pages are very dense, a paragraph could last an entire page, with minimum amount of dialogues. To give you a clear picture of what I’m talking about, here’s a picture of a paragraph I took from the book, non-spoiler of course
The first half of the book mostly looked like that, as you can see, there’s almost no heavy dialogue section and this means you’re going to have to read tons of details and descriptions. Plus, the long chapters (15 chapters for 490 pages) made this book not an easy read. I felt my progress reading this book became very slow because of these situations. These can be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences but personally I prefer it to be balanced. The second half however fixed this problem.
Overall, I truly enjoyed reading The Winter King and I thank John Gwynne for recommending this book to me. I will definitely continue with this trilogy and I highly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction and Arthurian legend.