Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: Excalibur, by Bernard Cornwell

Just when you start leaning away from a storyline, you find yourself captured within it again. In Excalibur, Bernard Cornwell follows perhaps his most dreary - Enemy of God - with his most exciting work. I loved this book.

The master of historical adventure once again throws his reader straight into a complex system of political intrigue and glorious - but frightening - battles. There really isn't much more that I can say about Cromwell's style and evident skill, having written some four previous reviews of his books.

Nor can I compare again the similarity between heroes, the intricate characterisations, the utmost respect he afford women - especially "thinkers" - or that the impeccable research that allows him to describe past events so clearly and vividly. At this stage, it's best to focus solely on story.

Excalibur is one giant, 440-page climax. It's Return of the Jedi, but not crap. In fact, I enjoyed this book as much or more than any of the author's works since his superb Grail Quest series (which in fact rate amongst the best books I've ever read). To quickly end a tawdry analogy, where Enemy of God, much like Empire, was slower-paced and acted as scene-setter, this Excalibur starts quickly, accelerates further and ends with a final confrontation set within a greater skirmish.

Better still, none of the heroes inexplicably turn into chumps.

All the individual story lines are deftly woven together to form a Bayeux tapestry not of Hastings, but of Dumnonian politics in the sixth century. The novel of course ends with the Battle of Camlann, leading Arthur to sail into the fog accompanied by characters who would otherwise have made for frustrating loose ends, Guinevere and Galahad.

While refusing to wholeheartedly embrace magic - and therefore delve into the fantasy that Arthurian fiction usually occupies - Cornwell still utilises mystical characters Merlin and Nimue at key junctures, often accompanying each appearance with some sort of explanation for their spells. There's a symmetry in Nimue assembling an Army of the Damned and further circular resolution brought to Derfel's faith (and paternity), Mordred's Kingly "reign" and the romance of Guinevere and Arthur, thought so fractured at the preceding book's conclusion.

Even though so much occurs, there are still moments of peace and pace; the signs of a master craftsman. To draw even further on a Star Wars thread, what made the first movie so great was it's pacing: fast, but narrative and smooth. Empire had much the same feel at a slower, expository amble. Fiction, no matter what the genre, works best when it's paced well.

In retrospect it's this uneven pacing that made Enemy of God (even though it scored okaaay) a heavy read. The conclusion paced so as for maximal enjoyment and narrative pleasure. Conclusions always fall into two groups - those that satisfy, and those that don't. This one, without question, is a most wonderful closure. Basketballs.

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