Right off the bat I am going to say The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell, is probably a bit too long and could use a thorough editing. Why am I starting with this point you ask? Well funny story, The Winter King is my book club’s book this month, and I had an eight hour drive to do, so I decided to pick it up on audio book. I was able to listen to all seven hours of The Winter King, go to a book club discussion about it, hit every single plot point, and then find out I had an abridged copy of the book that is only a third the size of the normal novel. If you can read a third of a book and come out with the same experience as someone reading the entire thing, you might need an editor.
Getting back on track, let me tell you a little about the book first. The Winter King is a historical fiction novel about King Arthur’s Legend, written as though it were history and not myth. The story follows Arthur after his childhood and begins when he has come to one of the many thrones of England. The book picks during the time where he tried to band together all the English provinces and recreate a whole England in the wake of its shattering by Rome. The purpose of the book is to ‘tell it how it is’ and give the ‘accurate’ accounting of Arthur’s legend. Our protagonist is the flawed narrator Derfel (pronounced apparently something like Dervo, don’t get me started) who is one of Arthur’s right hand men. We see Arthur’s life through his worshipping eyes and watch him grow up to help build Arthur’s legend.
The positives and difficulties of this book are actually quite clear. On the one hand, the book does a brilliant job of making Arthur feel like a real person that existed. All of the incredible feets and people in the legend are brought to life and feel real enough that you will think you are reading a history book. The characters are deep, interesting, and flawed and help drive the deeper philosophical idea behind the book: that these noble knights were actually just people; and often really shitty people who just had ballads written to cover up their awfulness. Through Derfel’s eyes we get to see him exalt Arthur’s victories to exaggerated heights, and sweep Arthur’s failings under the rug to be ignored. The narration is brilliant, and the book would be worth reading just for it. However there are also some pretty clear difficulties.
I call them difficulties because while they are not necessarily problems, there is a lot about The Winter King that makes it hard to read. To begin with I didn’t read TWO THIRDS of the book and didn’t notice, so as you can guess the pacing is slow and often can drag a lot as Cornwell describes everything. Next we have the names, which can be next to impossible to keep track of or even read in the first place. My personal favorite is Gorfyddyd (pronounced Gore-Vuv-Vid) which no one could read unless they read the audio book. In addition, while the medieval battles might have been written hyper realistically, they tended to be boring as sin (with one or two exceptions). I understand that swordfighting in the era involved two men standing still and thwapping each other’s ankles for two hours until one of them bleed out and keeled over, but I do not need every battle to completely realistic. However, the good news about most of these problems is they are immensely alleviated by the audio book version of The Winter King, read by Jonathan Keeble. Keeble frankly is incredible and might have sold me on audio books single handedly.
The Winter King is my first book to have two different ratings, one for the audiobook and one for the written version. It reminded me a lot of David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy in which Gemmell retells the story of the Iliad as though it were historical fiction. However, I believe Gemmells simple and direct writing style serves to make reading Troy a more enjoyable experience. Still, The Winter King certainly wasn’t bad and if you have some patience for a slow paced book you might find it’s right up your alley.
Rating: The Winter King – audio – 8.0/10
The Winter King – written – 6.0/10