I like epic books, I like gritty realism, and I like characters that break conventions. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell had it all. I read the 500 pages in something like three days and the book has impressed in my mind an image of a muddy, hungry, war-torn land where religions clash, and ethnic groups clash, and private interests clash too — and all that often results in loss of limbs, eyes, virginity, possessions and/or life.
The Winter King is a take on the legend of Arthur but Cornwell’s characters are far from the predictable set of knights and ladies. Arthur is indeed a great warrior, famous for his shiny roman scale armor, but also for the full set of teeth which he himself was very proud of “and cleaned them every day with salt when he could find it, and with plain water when he could not”. Lancelot, on the other hand, is a fraud, a lying prick and a coward, famous only because he knows how to make use of the propaganda mechanisms and pays the bards.
One of the themes I particularly enjoyed in The Winter King was the struggle between Christianity and the pagan religion of the Druids. Both were very real in the way they influenced their communities, and both were a little ridiculous too. Christians distrusted the pagans, the pagans were hostile to the Christians, and all attempted to ward off evil spirits — the ones by spitting, the others with a sign of the cross. Admittedly the pagans were more colorful of the two, less meek if you will, and only their Druids knew how to predict future by sacrificing a man and observing his death throes.
It was an entertaining read, epic yet not stereotypical, and so I was a little surprised that in the end, after putting down The Winter King, I didn’t really yearn to read the sequels. I just didn’t care that much. I suspect it might have been so because the novel is styled as a sort of chronicle and the only character the reader gets to know with any degree of intimacy is Derfel, the warrior-turned-monk narrator. He recounts the tale from a perspective of many years, and though it lends the book a certain believability, it removes the sense of urgency and makes it difficult to care.