Book 1 in the Pendragon Cycle
Yet another spin on the Arthur myth – with Atlantis thrown in for good measure. Lawhead’s mixing in of Atlanteans as elves/‘fair folk’, and the ‘Fisher King’ works well enough. It’s also good that he devotes more time to Atlantis than a mere prologue, so you better feel the contrast with the relatively illiterate and uncivilised Britons, and the classic elven sense of loss: some artefact seen by the locals as sophisticated wonder is simultaneously viewed as a tawdry echo by the refugees. Lawhead also adds Celtic druids, the declining Roman Empire, and early Christians, all interesting aspects of history and folklore.
There are some jarring plot points. The High King is assassinated, plunging the country into brutal civil war – yet the people in the capital seem to barely notice, and just enjoy their bull-dancing festivals. And when the veterans of this prolonged conflict set up in their new country, the king says, “Well, we’re not so used to fighting – we’re a bunch of softies and need these robust locals to help us out.” Did I mention they’d just been at war?
Lawhead does try to do goodness: a major theme is that some of the most important victories are spiritual. Taliesin’s most significant strength (and to a degree that of his step-father) is opening people up to beauty, hospitality, encouragement – to escape pettiness and ugliness.
I was trying to put my finger on why I didn’t really want to hang out with these people in these places – they seemed good in concept. What I came up with was that they felt too fairy-tale – which doesn’t really sustain a novel (let alone a fantasy series). The perfect people are too casually perfect, and they become bland. It doesn’t have to be that way – I can relish goodness (Macdonald’s Curdie, some of Gemmel’s heroes, Wolfe’s off the chart Sir Able, White or Stewart’s young Arthurs just off the top of my head. Gaiman manages a skilful balance of light/heavy, faery/fantasy, innocence/evil in Stardust), but here it’s colourless. Lots of words, some cool ideas, even some plot development, but still essentially two-dimensional.