Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell. A Review.

This is a book review for Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God: A Novel of Arthur. It is the second in a series called The Warlord Chronicles or sometimes the Arthur Books. Notice it does not say King Arthur. Cornwell has a different take on these legends and characters. I really enjoyed this book, and I am giving it a five star rating. This review does have a few plot spoilers, but I will keep them as vague as possible.

Cover image of the book Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

Five Star Rating

There was so much I liked about it. I liked being in England in the Dark Ages – or what we now call the Dark Ages – at a time when Christianity was not yet the dominant religion in England but was a rising force. It was also a time when people still believed in magic, spells and charms, and sometimes believing in it might have been enough to make wondrous things happen.

Cornwell pulls off two difficult moves. First, presenting “the truth behind the legend” in a plausible fashion. He recreates these characters and stories as they were before they got embellished and whitewashed, or as Arthur says, “Before we paid the bards to make our squalid victories into great triumphs, and sometimes we even believe the lies they sing to us.” As an aspiring author, I was impressed with this. Second, he doesn’t lose me when normally I would be thinking, wait that’s not how Lancelot is supposed to be, or wait, Arthur is supposed to be king. He stopped those responses from me even before they began. I think the reason is the narrator. He tells this story through Derfel (pronounced Der-vel), a knight and close friend of Arthur. Derfel is now an old man, and he is telling the story as he remembered it. Incidentally, it was the same way Anita Diamant was able to change the Old Testament story of Dinah in The Red Tent.

There is one disadvantage in this approach. You lose some suspense. When Derfel is in a dangerous situation, you already know he’s going to survive because he’s alive to tell the tale. But I think what he gains in believability makes it worth the trade off. I don’t know any other way Cornwell could make changes in such a familiar story. Using an older Derfel as the narrator makes it plausible because he has the credibility of an eyewitness. It also makes it more interesting in some ways, because you know some details are going to be the same and some different. You’re constantly watching to see how the “real” story compares with the legend.

I haven’t said King Arthur because Arthur is not a king. Mordred is the king of Dumnonia and Arthur’s half-nephew (if there is such a term). Arthur and Derfel are charged with protecting the boy Mordred and keeping order until he is old enough to rule as king. Derfel and others who follow Arthur think he should be king, while Arthur dreams of a quiet retirement as a farmer. Guinevere, on the other hand, wishes Arthur had more ambition. Her drive for power is going to have more impact on the story than you will imagine.

Lancelot is a king and far from being a hero or the greatest knight of Arthur’s roundtable. Merlin is a druid, and he is trying to recover the treasures of Britain. He takes Derfel on a quest to find one of those treasures, a magic cauldron. Merlin believes if the treasures are recovered, the old gods of Britain will walk the earth again.

And it’s not just the old gods that have a stake in Britain’s future. Because of leftover Roman influence, some foreign gods are still worshipped. Guinevere is a worshiper of Isis. Derfel is a Christian but belongs to a society of Mithras. And some Christians are especially troublesome because this story takes place between 490 and 496, and they believe 500 is the year of Armageddon. They believe they must get the world ready for the return of the Lord. In order to do that, they try to rid Britain of all traces of paganism. They go around destroying temples, burning villages, and torturing and killing pagans. They try to purify themselves by self-flagellation.

The Christians are not all bad, but they are often not the good guys in this story. And we have to be willing to admit, historically, that has often been the case. However, I think more than a knock on Christianity, it illustrates that when people believe the world is about to end, they will do things they would not do otherwise.

Arthur is caught in the middle between the traditional religion and Christianity. He is a Christian but does not take up the cause against the pagans. Because of this, Christian extremists call him the enemy of God, hence the title of the book. Instead of a religious crusade, Arthur wants to create a national identity for the Britons so they can unite against foreign invaders, like the Saxons and the Belgians. He creates the roundtable toward this end, though most of the names we are familiar with are missing.

Oh yes, the names. They are difficult. Because Arthurian legends were originally Welsh stories, Cornwell decided to keep most of the Welsh names for an authentic feel. Once you get past familiar ones like Arthur, Merlin, and Guinevere, the names are almost impossible to pronounce. I run into the same problem writing about Rome. The most common complaint I get is, These Roman names are difficult to read. And let me tell you, Roman names are child’s play compared to Welsh names. So I suggest the same trick many people use for Biblical names: Just make something up and move on. No one will care that you cheated.

But what really thrilled me was what Lancelot did to try to claim the throne of Dumnonia away from Mordred. Up until then, I would have given it four stars. It was a great story, well written, and I was enjoying it, but when that happened, holy crap! That was a twist worthy of Game of Thrones. That’s when it became a five star novel for me.

I mentioned this is the second book in a series. I haven’t read the rest of the series yet. So why did I read the second book first, you ask? I am part of an online book club of Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction. Last year, the theme was “second book.” One thing I’ve learned in this experience is with some series, you can read books out of order, and you don’t lose much. The second thing is sometimes the second book is better than the first, so the first book of a series may not always give you the best of what an author has to offer. So far, I’ve found this to be true of the Roma Sub Rosa series and the Saxon Tales series.

I see two reasons for this. First, I think sometimes the author becomes a better writer after the second book. There are lessons learned from that experience that you can carry with you when you write your second book. Second, in some cases, the main characters become better developed as the series progresses. I definitely thought that was true of the Harry Potter series. I know some H. P. fans are going to disagree with me, but I liked the books toward the end better than the ones in the beginning. I saw J. K. Rowling’s writing style and storytelling technique get better with each book, and what she did with the final book, Deathly Hallows, was absolutely amazing.

So now I’m not sure if I want to read the first book of this series or not. But if you are interested, volume 1 is called The Winter King, and volume 3 is called Excalibur, which I will be reading as soon as I can fit it into my schedule.

Book Review: The Pale Horseman, by Bernard Cornwell

This was the August pick of my Goodreads Book Club. It is the second in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales (also called The Last Kingdom) series.
I had some difficulty finding the right version. It looked like there might be different versions. When I looked for it on Audible, there was one version that was about 14 hours, and another about 5 and a half hours. In book listings, there were three different covers, one of which was meant to tie in with the TV series on BBC America, but they are the same book. The short version on Audible is the abridged version. When I knew I had the right book, I started reading.

I was a little worried at first, because the POV character (Uhtred) kept telling how every relationship would progress in the future. Fortunately, he stopped doing that. It’s more fun when you see relationships turn and threats emerge without being forewarned. So once the author focused on each scene as it was happening, I really liked it.

A fascinating story that takes us behind the scenes of one of the most important battles in the history of Britain. I always liked characters who are outsiders like Uhtred. Born a Saxon, raised among Danes, he’s not sure where his loyalties lie. Even when he commits to King Alfred, his paganism still makes things difficult for him. The Saxons don’t completely trust him, Alfred tries to convert him, and it causes tension with his wife. He is brash and sometimes stokes flames of ill will into roaring infernos. But his familiarity with the Danes allows him to gather vital intelligence for Alfred. That and his prowess as a warrior make him indispensable to the Saxons and their emerging king. There are exciting fight scenes and lesser battles, tension and intrigue, loss and heartbreak, leading up to the climactic battle at the end.

As a historical fiction reader, this has everything I could want. I imagine it will appeal more to men than women. Action oriented but with character development. You get an idea of why medieval history was such a rich source of inspiration for George R. R. Martin.

Review: Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor

This is a review I left on Amazon.com

I read this as part of my online book club on Goodreads. I remember reading a collection of short stories around Gordianus the Finder and thinking it was pretty good. This, however, I really liked. I guess this means for me, the characters and stories work better as a novel than short stories. It’s interesting how that works sometimes. In writing a novel versus short story, Saylor was able to do more to develop the characters and ratchet up the tension.

Arms of Nemesis-cover

This is the first novel I’ve read in the Roma sub Rosa series (featuring Gordianus the Finder), though the second in the series. I want to go back and read the first one – not because I think I missed anything from not having read it first but because I enjoyed this one so much. It appears you don’t necessarily have to read the series in order.

It is set in the late Republic, the time of Cicero, Pompey, and Crassus. It’s not the same period I write in, so I was not sure if I wanted to invest myself in the series. Now, I definitely want to go back and read more.

In Arms of Nemesis, Marcus Crassus – the richest man in Rome – hires Gordianus to solve the murder of his cousin, Lucius Licinius, at his villa at Baiae. Crassus believes he already knows who killed his cousin – two runaway slaves who were inspired to join Spartacus in his slave revolt. He plans to kill every slave in the household to set an example for other slaves in the area who may get the same idea. However, at the request (more like cajoling) of Lucius’s wife, Gelina, he agrees to wait until after the funeral to execute his plan. Roman custom has the funeral a week after the death, but even with the fastest ship available, it takes five days for Gordianus to reach Baiae from Rome, giving him and his mute son, Eco, only two days to A) find out if the two slaves really are the murderers, B) if not them, who?, and C) be able to prove it to Crassus’s satisfaction.

Baiae is one of the favorite vacation spots for Rome’s wealthiest and most elite. The case puts Gordianus and Eco in the middle of their circles, the skeletons they hide (figuratively and literally), the slaves that run the household (and who are depending on him to save their lives), the cave of the Sybil, and the reputed entrance to Hades.

It’s a great story with interesting characters popping up throughout. I did not give it five stars because, well, this is a pet peeve of mine, there were too many conversations of the type I call, “As you know, Bob.” These are the type of conversations where someone says something to another character that they both already know in order to give the reader some background information. It is tricky to be able to supply necessary back story without it breaking the flow of the story. But that kind of conversation always looks contrived.

That being said, I wish there were a way to give it a four-and-a-half star rating, because it’s not really worth dropping a full star for that.