I’ve just finished the second book in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord trilogy (a gutsy and gritty retelling of the Arthur mythos) and a bloody good read it is too. I’ve still got Excalibur to go, which I shall be reading as swiftly as possible before A Dance With Dragons comes out, and indeed these tales of swords, beards and heroism make a lovely almost-fantasy appetizer for the next George R.R Martin book.
What has impressed me in particular is the quality of female characters in the first two books (The Winter King and Enemy of God, go and grab copies) – previously my only experience of Cornwell was via the TV series Sharpe, which my partner is a big fan of (I rather like it myself), but it has to be said the ladies in the series don’t have a lot going for them. His first wife, sure, the Spanish rebel who kicked ass in her own right, she was excellent but inevitably she didn’t quite last the whole series, and then after her most of the female characters in Sharpe (the TV series, at least) are consigned to breathing heavily in garments not made to stand such stresses and throwing themselves (understandably, perhaps) at the eponymous hero. Even worse, one of his wives turns out to be an absolute rotter, who simpers and faints and gets off with Wesley Wyndham-Price instead.
However, in his King Arthur stories Bernard Cornwell has given us a cast full of extraordinary and interesting ladies; characters who are perhaps more memorable even than the male characters you remember from the Arthur mythology. There is Nimue, Merlin’s high priestess and childhood friend of our narrator- she is clever, ruthless, intermittently mad, and utterly determined. The portrayal of Guinevere is a fascinating one, as we meet a woman who is beautiful and knows it, and has infinitely more ambition than even Arthur himself- a woman constrained by the times she lives in, and looking for ways to break out. Even Ceinwyn, who could easily have been a winsome blond princess with little else to do but be the caring one, keeps things a little subversive by taking a vow never to marry, and instead takes her own path through life.
This is more like it. And there’s tons of other stuff to admire about the books of course, particularly Merlin, who is devious beyond measure and very, very funny, and Cornwell gives us a portrayal of pagan Britain that feels real, even if it is nearly impossible to know exactly how it all went down. I’m expecting to zoom through the third book now, and only partly because I know Westeros is waiting for me at the end of it.
Oh, and if you haven’t done so yet, please do check out the short story I posted below… it’s not Arthurian Fantasy but I am very close to 100 views and every plug helps! ;)