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When we lived in Chicago, I worked in the Loop & there were a couple of
bookstores right nearby.  So, as you'd imagine, I pretty much haunted them & one
day, like manna falling from Heaven, B. Dalton got a huge shipment of
remaindered books & aggressively marked them down.  So I found a bunch of great
books & a few that looked good & were so cheap, it was worth trying them.  Two
were from a series I'd never heard of, The Camlud Chronicles,  by a Canadian
author named Jack Whyte.  In fact, they were Canadian versions of the books and
as it turned out, had never been published in the U.S.

As it happened, the books, set in 5th Century Britain as Roman occupation is
ending, related the events leading up to the forging of Excalibur & were
terrific.  I passed them on to Chuck & he liked them.  We both prowled around
looking for the succeeding volumes & couldn't find them.  As if that weren't bad
enough, I was at Dartmouth Bookstore one day & found the first volume in
Hardcover with cover blurbs announcing an exciting new series.  They were just
getting around to publishing American editions, so we were looking at three
years before the third volume came out here.  But for once, Chuck's notorious
craftiness worked in my favor.  On one of his trips he found himself in Canada &
popped into a bookstore, where, lo and behold, there were the next two volumes.

He read them & passed them on & I've had them for awhile.  I was hoping to wait
until the series was done before reading them, but Zack has now read the first
two & was clamoring for the third, so I advanced my timetable.

This third entry in the series tells the story of the cousins Caius Merlyn
Britannicus and Uther Pendragon & their battles with King Lot of Cornwall.
(Fans of King Arthur will recognize Uther as Arthur's father & everyone knows
Merlin.)  Merlin is now the keeper of Excalibur and has been entrusted with the
task of finding the man worthy of wielding it.

Keeping in mind that it had a high bar to clear, I did not like this volume as
much as the prior two (I'd actually rather that he'd worked backward in time,
since we all know the story of Arthur).  However, there were two aspects of the
book that I liked very much.

First: Whyte shows the tremendous effect of the longbow.  One of my notorious
pet theories, known as The Longbow Theory of Democracy (I'll develop it more
fully elsewhere), is that the development of the longbow was a great
democratizing force.  It was cheap, easy to produce and was effective even
against armor.  It was "The Equalizer".  A peasant couldn't afford armor and a
steed and a sword, but all these accouterments became superfluous if a longbow
could defeat them.  Thus, where armor favored a caste system of power, the
advent of the longbow was a vital step towards a more equal distribution of
power & self-government.

Second: One of the central themes of the book is the resentment of Britain's
Christians towards the Roman Church.  One of the pivotal episodes in the book
concerns the Church's emissaries & their effort to reign in the distinctly
British version of Christianity that the Islanders practice.  This is another
pet theory; that there was something unique in the intellectual/political/
social milieu of Britain that gave rise to Capitalism (Adam Smith), Democracy
(Arthur, Robin Hood, Simon De Montfort, Magna Carta, etc.) and Protestantism
(Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Puritan Revolution, etc..).

So, I'm giving this one a sort of mixed review.  I loved the first two volumes
and enjoy the way he's developing themes that I agree with.  However, this entry
didn't meet the high standard of his previous efforts.

GRADE: B

Charlie responds:

Just read your review of it and tend to agree... still a fun series, but the
steam starts to go out of it when he approaches events we're more familiar
with.  However, if you think of Arthur as escapist fantasy with heroes
descended from Romans, Whyte is the way to go.

For an interesting alternate viewpoint, read the Cornwell trilogy on Arthur
that develops many of the same religious themes, but portrays Arthur et al
completely differently.  Here he's of British Isles lineage, much dirtier
and less heroic.  The battles with the church are cast much more starkly as
heathens vs. Catholics, with blood in the air throughout.  I liked both
Whyte and Cornwell, came away thinking that Cornwell (of Sharpe fame) writes
a much better battle scene and offers a scenario that's probably closer to
true.  And since his battle scenes are better, the more familiar history is
a better read.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Historical Fiction
Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW : Jack Whyte (Linda Richards, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Uther By Jack Whyte (Joan Ramsay, Globe and Mail)
 

If you liked The Eagle's Brood, try:

Keegan, John
    -The Face of Battle

Penman, Sharon Kay
    -Falls the Shadow

Roberson, Jennifer
    -The Lady of the Forest

Sienkiewicz, Henryk
    -With Fire & Sword  (one of Orrin's Top Ten Classics and Novels)
    -The Teutonic Knights

Tranter, Nigel
    -The Bruce Trilogy

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