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2.28.2009

Review: The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick

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The Kingmaking (Pendragon's Banner Trilogy #1) by Helen Hollick
Historical Fiction, Dark Ages
Trade Paperback (SOURCEBOOKS LANDMARK, 592 pages, $16.99)
ISBN# 1402218885
A novel of Arthur as he really was.
In the first book of this exciting trilogy, author Helen Hollick brings to life Arthur Pendragon as he really might have been. Leaving behind the fairy-tale element of Merlin's magic and the improbable existence of Lancelot, Hollick instead transports the reader to the early years of Britain circa 455 AD and tells the Arthurian legend in a solid and believable way.
For one, Arthur does not pull a sword from a stone using superhuman strength; rather, he is named heir to Britain (if he can win it from the tyrant Vortigern) while standing near a "hallowed stone, the symbol of a warrior's strength and the chieftain's right of leadership." Later, a sword won in battle signals his place as Britain's King.
This is a story of harsh battles, secret treasonous plots, and the life-threatening politics of the dark ages of early Britain. Intertwined through it all is the often-tested love of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere in Welsh - her name as it really would have been) as they struggle to survive and conquer to see Pendragon become King.

Author Site:
www.helenhollick.net


Remaking the Legend (5 stars)

There are many differing legends and ideas of who King Arthur was both as a man and as a ruler. Scholars can debate and those who love a good sword and sorcery story can dream but the truth is we will never know the truth. We are thus left with hundreds of interpretations and imaginings of who this legendary figure might have been. Hollick's version of events drops the knights and wizards elements common in Arthurian legend and treads upon a more it-could-have-been road.

With the Roman Empire leaving Britain to its own devices, the tribes have been left under the rule of Votigern a man who betrays them by taking a Saxon wife. Much of the book centers on the differences between the Saxon and the Briton peoples, their mutual dislike of one another. Thinking himself merely a bastard taken under the wing of a man who may or may not be his father young Arthur travels to the Gwynedd with Uthr Pendragon in preparation for war. Uthr will reclaim his throne from Votigern through strength of arms and the loyalty of his friend Cunedda, father of the wild lass Gwenhwyfar.

When Uthr falls in battle there is no one left who can take up the banner of the Pendragon and reclaim the throne. Until Cunedda reveals a secret he has kept for many years. But it will be years before the Pendragon is ready to rise again and with that time much can happen. Arthur will have to bow to the man he has sworn to rise against and give up his beloved Gwenhwyfar to reclaim Uthr's stolen throne.

Such a tough book to summarize, truly. I left so much out because I don't want to spoil anything! This story spans several years and thus a lot of story has to be told. I often struggle with a book this long as they tend to always reach a slow point where it feels as if the action will never pick up. Fortunately, Hollick knows how to fill these slower times with intrigue and the scandalous sort of stuff one might not expect in a book about Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. From Gwenhwyfar's cruel sister-in-law to Votigern's treacherous daughter Winifred the ladies of this story are just as violent and potentially evil as the men. If you enjoy a book that can mix that sort of thing with sword battles, cavalry strategy and a well explored world The Kingmaking really delivers.

Hollick makes few apologies for the artistic liberties she has taken but if you're not immediately sold on it she does offer an author's note I found very helpful as this particular historical era was not one I had ever explored in fiction. Those who are looking for familiar characters of Arthurian legend such as Lancelot or Merlin won't find them here but strangely, I didn't feel that this was a loss. I very much enjoyed that the characters were all believable, especially the villainous ones. It wasn't hard to imagine the lengths they could be driven to by the times and the world they lived in. The chemistry between this version of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar was also not unlikely and though it wasn't particularly courtly there was a realistic passion there.

I enjoyed The Kingmaking from cover to cover. Originally I had set out to read five chapters a night so I wouldn't get overwhelmed but quickly began cheating and reading just a few more. If you're looking for an engrossing Dark Ages tale with action and romance or you'd simply like to take another look at the legend of Arthur I highly recommend this book!

1 comment:

Steven said...

I liked Hollick’s depiction of Arthur: much more real-to-life than the traditional legend. I felt the author did a good job of blending history with myth, and creating an accurate picture of post-Roman Britain.

Arthur definitely had moments where you disliked him, among his other good qualities. Gwenhwyfar was the same way. There were times where I questioned her, but overall, she was more like-able than Arthur.

What did you think of the antagonist characters? Did you think they were well-rounded and complex? What did you think of Winifred? Did she have any redeeming qualities in your mind?

Also, now that I think about it, I would have liked to see Morgause as a more regularly character throughout the novel. What do you think? I thought she was an interesting, conflicting character.

Steven Till
http://steventill.com

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