"Camelot is less a romantic kingdom than a lusty and fragmented realm in this spirited retelling of Arthurian legend, the second novel in Hollick's projected trilogy (The Kingmaking
). Over the years, Arthur Pendragon and Gwenhwyfar have accumulated a vast array of estranged relatives, rivals and half-mad adversaries. Among the most formidable of their enemies are Winifred, Arthur's embittered ex-wife, who's plotting to ensconce her son, Cerdic, as heir to the throne, and Morgause, a manipulative priestess who wants to consolidate her power in the north to become queen of the realm. Hollick manipulates a large cast of characters with a deft hand. She is most successful in depicting Arthur and Gwenhwyfar not as a newly married couple but as parents who grieve as their three sons are endangered by many calamities.
In an author's note, Hollick writes: "Arthur Pendragon, to those people who study him, is a very personal and passionately viewed character. We all have our own ideas, insist ours is the correct one, and argue like mad with anyone who disagrees!"
'Hit it man!' Bedwyr bellowed, 'It's a bloody sword you're using, not a pitch fork!' Exasperated, he turned, swivelling at the waist, to face Arthur who stood a yard or two behind. He spread his arms. 'Jesu's love, cousin, these mud-wallowers are hopeless!'
Thrusting his fingers through his leather baldric strap, the Pendragon, masking his own frustration, merely shook his head. 'They are all we have, Bedwyr, we must make fighting men out of them.' Added ruefully, and slightly under his breath, 'Somehow'.
Another rider made a pathetic attempt to cut at the straw-filled man with his sword. He pushed his horse into a canter, going too fast too soon. The horse, realising the uselessness of the man on its back, stopped abruptly to crop the grass three feet before the target. The rider, leaning forward, urging the horse on with frantic kicking legs and flapping arms, tumbled in a haphazard heap over the horse's shoulder.
'Oh Christ's patience!' Bedwyr roared, striding forward to pick him up by the neckband of his tunic. Shaking the poor man as if he were a rat, Bedwyr scolded with his tongue. 'Call yourselves riders? Horsemen? God's blood, you're nothing but a bunch of plough-pushers!'
The faces of the ninety or so trainees fell longer, more disillusioned. They had come to join the Artoriani, filled with the hopes and dreams of glory - fight with Arthur, make a name for yourself! Half of this group were from Juliomagus itself, others from Caesarodunum or Condivicnum, coming from the towns, settlements or farm-steadings, drawn to Arthur's cavalry like ants to spilt honey. All young men who were sick of Rome's apathetic attitude towards the threat of the Goths. Arthur had accepted them, enrolling them as Cymry - only the best, the élite, became Artoriani, but Cymry, comrade, brother, was enough. To fight under Arthur's Dragon Banner was enough.
Bedwyr took a long, slow deep breath. He and Arthur's officers had to make soldiers out of these lumps. If Syagrius were to come, as promised, there would be no need to recruit these imbeciles, no need to count on the inane. But it seemed Syagrius was delayed, yet again, would not be coming now until next month.
Arthur, last night, talking with his officers, had raised again the issue of going home, but even for that they had to rely on Syagrius, for it was he who had provided the ships, the horse-transporters, the seamen to bring them here.
'What these men need,' Arthur said, with that familiar thoughtful expression of one eye half-closed, the other eyebrow raised, 'is some incentive.' He stood a moment, considering; the next he was running, pushing through the line of men. The horse that the rider had fallen from, a fine bay, though its head was common, was still eating grass. Arthur vaulted into the saddle from a run, taking up the reins as he landed, and urging the animal into a gallop all in one movement. Startled, the horse tossed its head, snorted and leapt forward. Arthur galloped it across the training field, wheeled at the far end and, without slowing, galloped back. The bay was going fast, eager, excited - and then Arthur performed several of the movements that were everyday exercises to the Artoriani: dismount at the gallop run a few paces, vault across the horse's back to land on the far side, vault again; turn around in the saddle through a full 360 degrees. He had crossed the field, was swinging the animal to come again . . . Bedwyr ran forward, laid a javelin on the grass… Arthur saw, rode to take the thing up. Would he miss, so fast he was going? He leant down from the saddle, plucked the shaft up, rode on, the horse not breaking pace once, the javelin held high above the rider's head. Arthur halted, bringing the horse to a stand in one flowing movement. And then he circled, turning the horse this way and that, round and around, and as he manoeuvred, he threw the javelin, tossing it high, up above his head, catching it with each change of direction . . . and was off again, galloping straight at the straw-man target - and was past, the javelin quivering as it thudded neatly into where the heart would be.
At the far end, Arthur slowed, eased the horse to walk, caressed its neck, praising and patting, walked on a relaxed, loose rein back to the group of impressed men.
'That,' he said simply, 'is what it is to be Artoriani.' He dismounted, gave the reins of the sweating animal to its deposited rider and, with a final slap to its rump, Arthur sauntered away, as if the display of horsemanship was an everyday occurrence.
"The Kingmaking" by Helen Hollick
"A wonderful book...breathes new life into an ancient legend"
"A uniquely compelling novel which is bound to have a resounding and lasting impact on Arthurian fiction."
"Helen Hollick has it all! She tells a great story, gets her history right and writes consistently readable books!"
"An epic tale... Helen Hollick has done her homework meticulously and her story gleams with convincing Dark Age detail."