Sunday, November 08, 2009

Review - Pendragon's Banner by Helen Hollick

Let me begin this review by saying that over the last two decades or so, I've not read much Arthurian fiction (unlike my husband) - mostly because I hate the ending of the story, however, I could not pass up the opportunity to review the middle book of Helen Hollick's Arthurian trilogy, Pendragon's Banner. And I'm very glad I did. Ms. Hollick's fresh take on the story has all the familiar elements, along with some new twists.

Set three years after Arthur has been declared king, Pendragon's Banner focusses on his efforts to maintain his rule, in the face of treachery and plotting by Morgause and the jealousy of those over who he now rules. Rebellion flares in different parts of the kingdom and Arthur must find a way to defeat his enemies without losing the love and loyalty of Gwenhyfar.

I will admit it took me a few chapters to become fully engaged in the story, but once I was, I had to keep reading. Ms. Hollick's pacing is ideal, her writing vivid and engrossing as she draws you back through the ages to an era of violence, danger and lust for power. Her world-building is subtle, yet effective, with well-placed historical details and just the right combination of modern and period language without descending into the dreaded gadzookery.

Her characters are full of life and well-drawn, real people rather than stereotypes. Arthur especially impressed me, being such a difficult character to write. A legend based on a historical character, he is the hero of the story, yet still a man - balancing the two sides cannot be easy, yet I was able to cheer for him because he was first and foremost a man of his era. A good man, yes, but no saint, one who had to make difficult decisions and face the consequences. His love for Gwenhyfar is genuine, yet true to his era, he does not remain faithful to her.

Gwenhyfar too is a complex character, a woman in love, a mother, a sister and a queen. Through difficult circumstances she must play each role with care and Ms. Hollick's portrayal is both deft and convincing. I had little trouble believing in the different sides to Arthur's consort and genuinely enjoy her role as both his greatest supporter and biggest challenger.

The secondary characters are equally convincing, even Morgause who is truly evil. In the hands of a less sure author she could have degenerated into the female equivalent of the moustache-twirling villain, yet she does not, a sure sign of skilled characterization. The only character who did not really resonate for me was Morgaine, and that may be because her time to shine will come in Book Three.

What affected me the most was the intensity of the story. At times I did have to put the book down (though it still only took me about six evenings to finish) because I was so overwhelmed I could not continue. It's often said you don't ever want a reader to put a book down, but I think, as both a reader and a writer, that it's a testament to the writer's talent if the reader becomes so involved emotionally that they need to take a break. Even more telling is that when I finished this book, I wanted to read the third as well, regardless of my aforestated misgivings about reading Arthur's story.

So if you're looking for a new series about King Arthur, I highly recommend you pick up that by Ms. Hollick. I doubt you'll be disappointed.