Book Review: The Winter King

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


If you put an infinite number of ethnologists on an infinite number of zoom calls with the express purpose of creating the most British name possible, they would all eventually terminate at Bernard Cornwell. You know “American as baseball and apple pie”? Cornwell is as English as crumpets and abusing the Irish.

I don’t hold that against him, though. An accident of birth. Despite his crippling Britishness, he is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read. The Winter King is gritty and poetic. Every word is immaculate and precise, every line polished to a high sheen. I can’t imagine how many edits went into this colossal novel, but if it’s less than seven, Cornwell isn’t human.

The Warlord Chronicles follow the rise of King Arthur, known colloquially as the “Enemy of God”, which is a fun departure from guy who masterminded the quest for the Holy Grail. The lens through which Arthur is observed is a literate orphan with the catastrophic name of Derfel Cadarn, allegedly based on Bedivere. Derfel comes up in Merlin’s private orphanage/asylum, where he collects crazies and the crippled in an effort to read auguries from the gods in their ramblings or mutilations.

There’s too much story for a play-by-play, and it’s too good for me to ruin here. Suffice it to say, everybody’s bonkers, but 400 AD in general is bonkers, and as the series goes on you, as a reader, become acquainted with the weird logic of the world, its druidic curses and the way people make sense of the catastrophes constantly taking place around them.

Arthur’s a naive doofus, doing his best to inflict utopia on a begrudging Britain while trying to stick to a Lawful Good code of conduct and getting volleyball spiked to the ground by anyone who doesn’t share his vision (that is to say, everyone but Derfel, and even Derfel has his doubts). Merlin is an absolute sociopath. Derfel is an everyman, stumbling along and doing what seems to make the most sense at any given moment.

I think what’s most engaging about the story is the curiosity that comes from hearing about the kind of man Derfel was, this expert man-at-arms, trusted warlord to both Arthur and Merlin, reliable, honest, and direct but capable of cold-blooded wholesale slaughter when the moment calls for it, and his transformation into the cringing, elderly Christian monk in the service of the Mouse Lord, who is one of the most despicable characters in fiction.

I’m already halfway through the next one. Phenomenal novel.





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