Edition reviewed: Headline, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7553-4868-8. 488 pages. Review copy supplied by publisher.
Sequel to King Arthur: Dragon's Child, this is the second in a trilogy retelling the Arthurian legends. Set in south-western Britain shortly after the end of Roman rule, most of the characters are familiar figures from the legends, including Artor (King Arthur), his second wife Wenhaver (Guinevere), his cousin Caius (Kay), his foster-father Ector, Myrddion Merlinus (Merlin), Nimue, Morgan, Morgause and her husband King Lot, Gawayne and Bedwyr (Bedivere). Other characters, such as Artor's veteran swordmaster Targo and the spy Gruffydd, are fictional.
Artor, raised in Roman ways as the anonymous ward of the Roman nobleman Ector, is now established as High King of Britain with his capital at the rebuilt hillfort of Cadbury. He has one more battle to fight, against the Saxon chieftain Glamdring whose stronghold is at Caer Fyrddin (modern Carmarthen) in south-west Wales, for which Artor will need the help of his reluctant ally King Lot and an ex-slave named Bedwyr. Artor also knows he must marry again to beget an heir, but he is still traumatised by the tragic death of his beloved first wife (told in Book One). Eventually he weds Wenhaver, the beautiful, brainless, spiteful, blonde daughter of the powerful king Leodegran - reckless of Morgan's long-ago prophecy that a woman with yellow hair will destroy his kingdom...
This version of the perennially popular King Arthur story takes as its premise the inscription reported to have been found by medieval monks marking the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey. The inscription is now lost, and different sources give different versions of its wording (see the Wikipedia article on Avalon for discussion of its historical authenticity, or otherwise. Gerald of Wales, a contemporary chronicler who apparently saw the inscription at or shortly after its discovery, gives the wording as:
Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon
--Quoted in Wikipedia article on Avalon
If Guinevere was King Arthur's second wife, legend is silent on the subject of his first wife so the novelist's imagination has free rein. In this retelling, Artor's first wife Gallia was a sweet Roman lady and the love of his life. Artor has never recovered emotionally from her death, so although Gallia is dead before Warrior of the West opens (her story is covered in Book One), the memory of her still shapes Artor's feelings and behaviour. I thought this was an interesting premise.
Warrior of the West seemed to me to have a strong flavour of unreality, perhaps fantasy. This is not because it features magic - the book is refreshingly free of supernatural happenings - but comes from the general tone. For example, the name of Artor's stupid and dastardly Saxon adversary in the first half of the novel is Glamdring. Fellow Tolkien geeks will immediately recognise this as the name of Gandalf's elven-forged sword in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, meaning 'Foe-hammer' in Tolkien's invented language Sindarin. The elements aren't obviously present in the Old English dictionary, so it doesn't immediately appear to be an Old English word that Tolkien adapted to his own purposes (as he did with 'orc'). Even if it is derived from an Old English name, calling a major character 'Glamdring' certainly gave me a strong impression of a fantasy setting. This is reinforced by setting Glamdring and his Saxon stronghold at modern Carmarthen in south-west Wales, a place that isn't usually associated with Saxons in Arthuriana. The author's note credits The Keys to Avalon by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd as inspiration and/or source for the locations. I have to say I have not found this particular theory terribly convincing (for details, see Keith Matthews' critique, available online), and this no doubt contributed to the impression of a fantasy setting.
As regulars will know, I enjoy 'invented history', so I have no problem with stories set in entirely imaginary worlds, with or without historical parallels. So the chief weakness of Warrior of the West for me was not in the setting but in its structure and its prose style. The book falls into two scarcely connected parts. The first part features Artor's military campaign against Glamdring, and has a starring role for a courageous young ex-slave and warrior called Bedwyr with a prophetic destiny. Then at the end of this campaign Bedwyr disappears from the narrative entirely and is, as far as I can recall, never mentioned again in the rest of the book. The second part focuses on political chicanery and a sadistic serial killer at Arthur's stronghold at Cadbury, with apparently little or no connection to the first part. Perhaps Bedwyr's story will be taken up and integrated with the rest in Book Three; all I can say is that Warrior of the West felt disjointed. The style seemed to me to be excessively wordy, reminiscent of the more ponderous types of academic writing, or of the reports of Victorian antiquaries. Some readers might find this gives the book an archaic olde-worlde feel. I found it lifeless, especially in the second part of the book where there is less action and more court bickering.
Since I found the style dull, this probably explains why I also found that most of the characters never really came to life for me. Artor is an interesting mix of cold, calculating ruthlessness and passionate loyalty to his friends, and the Roman Army veteran Targo is sympathetically drawn as a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth old soldier. Wenhaver is memorably portrayed as a spoilt, selfish, spiteful brat with no redeeming features whatsoever except that she has the face and figure of a Barbie doll (and about as much brain).
A couple of useful sketch maps at the front of the book show the arrangement of Glastonbury and Artor's stronghold at Cadbury, and the Author's Note provides an interesting discussion of the various sources for the legend and the author's take on the characters.
Retelling of the Arthur legend based on an interesting premise, but not a
book for me.