“The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy” by Helen Hollick (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009)

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Originally published in Britain during the early 1990s, The Kingmaking is the first book in the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy from British author Helen Hollick.  With the tagline “a novel of Arthur as he really was,” Hollick certainly does her research in bringing to life the possible idea of a war king known as Arthur that would grow to become the magical, immortal legend.

The Arthurian legend is an interesting one that has seen and continues to see countless retellings, due to the fact that there is very little evidence proving the existence of a warrior king known as Arthur; mentions of Merlin and Guenevere are even rarer, while Lancelot is a complete fabrication by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century.  What is known is that the fifth century was a very turbulent time for Britain with the desertion by Rome and its forces; the invasion of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes; and the invading forces of the Scots and Picts from Ireland and Scotland respectively.  Britain was a melting pot of different peoples, and the Britons were left wondering what to do after being supported and protected for so long by the Romans.  It was in this time – it is thought — at the dawn of the Middle Ages, that a warrior king arose to defend the Britons and lead them to defending their country.

Hollick uses Wales as her setting for Arthur and his people, using Welsh names like Gwenhwyfar (for Guenevere), Cunedda (for Gwenhwyfar’s father), and Uthr (for rightful king of Britain and father to Arthur).  While Camelot is thought to be located near Glastonbury and Tintagel is to be found in Cornwall, with the invading forces pushing the Britons back, Wales was a very likely location for Arthur and his people.  Hollick also uses characters who were known to exist, like Vortigern who supposedly ruled the Britons for some time and was purportedly the one to invite the Germanic forces from the mainland to defend the Britons against the Scots and Picts.  There is Hengest and Horsa, the ruthless Saxon Brothers, Hengest’s daughter Rowena, as well as some of Vortigern’s own offspring, Vortimer, Catigern, and his daughter Winifred.

Hollick writes of a world and life that is becoming somewhat familiar, with the growing genre of medieval historical fiction, joining other epic novels like Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and Cathedral of the Sea.  These are not the romanticized and glamorous characters of Chrétien de Troyes, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, or the famous musical Camelot.  It is a cold, harsh world, where much blood is shed and many die.  Hollick does a wonderful job of balancing the narrative with the different characters, and not just keeping it to one person as is common in other Arthurian sagas.  She also maintains the historical accuracy, using the tools and the skills that existed in the world of the fifth century, and yet making The Kingmaking a fast-paced, action-packed start to one of the best Arthurian series to be written.

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Originally written on March 30th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.