The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell
The tale begins in Dark Age Britain, a land where Arthur has been banished and Merlin has disappeared, where a child-king sits unprotected on the throne, where religion vies with magic for the souls of the people. It is to this desperate land that Arthur returns, a man at once utterly human and truly heroic: a man of honor, loyalty, and amazing valor; a man who loves Guinevere more passionately than he should; a man whose life is at once tragic and triumphant.
As Arthur fights to keep a flicker of civilization alive in a barbaric world, Bernard Cornwell makes a familiar tale into a legend all over again.
This was the first of Cornwell's books that I ever read and it was positively remarkable. Instead of the usual Arthurian story that is full of Merlin and magic, knights in shining armor, and Camelot, we have a a story that breathes life into a possible historical basis for the legend behind Arthur. If you are looking for a true fantasy or romance, this is not the Arthur book for you.
The story is told through the eyes of Derfel, a Saxon child raised by the Britons and a ward in Merlin's household. He works his way up through the ranks to become a great solider and one of Arthur's close friends. Through his eyes we see an Arthur that really "could have been." He is not a king but a powerful lord. He is a great man and respected but just a man with his own faults and weaknesses; Merlin is not beside him helping out with lots of magical spells. We see a gritty, harsh, dirty 5th Century England full of superstition, violence, and bloodshed, only a generation or so removed from the Roman occupation. The descriptions of scenery, battles, etc are positively amazing and you will feel like you are in the middle of it all. Cornwell has included characters that we are familiar with but some of them (Lancelot in particular) are given very different personalities or rolls in the overall story (Mordred for example is the true king, Uther's grandson, but a crippled infant, while Arthur is Uther's bastard son who has come to protect the child). Some may find the changes in a few of the personalities disturbing (if you really hold to the well known Arthurian legends) but I found it enjoyable to read something a bit new in a familiar story; I honestly hated Lancelot once his true personality was revealed. The twists and turns throughout the story will keep you on the edge of your seat; you think you know this story well but Cornwell adds so much more to it in this novel. One good example is the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere (though their story becomes much more filled out as you progress through the trilogy); there is that flash of love and passion in the beginning but things never stay that way forever. Cornwell includes an extensive and detailed character and places list at the beginning and a few maps at the end which will really help you keep up with who is who and where they are since he does not use well known names for most of the locations. I think what I enjoyed most about this story (and the next two in the series) was that they are written in such a way as to be incredibly believable; I can really believe that THIS Arthur existed.
While The Mists of Avalon is still my hands down favorite when it comes to Arthurian stories, I positively LOVED this book (and trilogy). I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves a good story about Arthur and to those who love to read versions of the story that make it seem as if he could really have existed. If you enjoy this book, make sure that you read the following novels in the series: Enemy of God and Excalibur.