Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is nothing if not formulaic.  His historical novels are set around major turning points in English military history, his heroes enlightened and their heroines broken free of the servitude inherent in Dark Age womanhood.  Like that masterpiece of 1980s computer gaming Double Dragon, the hero must face a powerful enemy at the end of each novel, signalling his progression into a knowledgeable and wise being, rather than a smart, love-lorn warrior.

In Enemy of God, Lord Derfel Cadarn beats a familiar path in moving from impetuousity to a respected, sage Warlord, aided by the love of a good woman - perhaps Cornwell best drawn heroine, stands by his lord, Arthur, and drives the plot forward in simple, easily digestible morsels.

Does this sound familiar?  It bloody well should, because I said exactly the same things about his latest Saxon Story, The Burning Land a six months ago.  And could have said much the same of the past four in that series.  The Warlord Chronicles aren't derivative as they predate the Saxon Stories by a number of years, but they certainly bear a close resemblance to one another.  Given some historian's perception that Arthur in fact took his name from King Alfred the Great, this is hardly surprising - but does make for a predictability which is actually now unwelcome.

That's not to say that the book is poorly written at all - it's his usual masterpiece of research, hijinks and intrigue.  Religion, as was it's wont at that time and still is now, plays a tremendously significant role in politics of the era, leading to the Arthur's titular role.  Arthur is portrayed as sympathetically as any of Cornwell's heroes and indeed heroines but with only one difference: despite all indications to the contrary throughout the text, like main protagonist Derfel, are simple one-layered men.  This explains why Derfel's tone throughout writing this first-person account is so loving - they are kindred.

In fact, the same one-layeredness could be said of almost all the men in the novel: from Saxon kings Aelle and Cerdic, to Lancelot, Galahad, Cuneglas, Mordred, Culwhch ... all have personality woven through their descriptions, but are at best single-tiered characters with a minimum of complexity.  What they do, they do well - as was the truth of those times.  As with The Burning Land, the most thickly layered characters are women; especially Guinevere, but also Nimue and Ceinwyn.  

Cornwell once stated that the Warlord Chronicles were his favourite completed works.  They are easy reads and tell a great story with a new vigour and outlook: one of the only accounts of Arthur which doesn't bury itself deep in fantasy.  For that, the author should be respected - but his ability to surprise now must be called into question.  Currently, I'm buried half-way through the final book in the series, Excalibur.  There are few surprises - just consistently excellent writing.

Tennis Balls.

Click here to see the review of Part One of the Warlord Chronicles: The Winter King
Click here to see the review of Part Three of the Warlord Chronicles: Excalibur

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