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Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade. As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the enemy at the gates, Arthur is embroiled in a doomed romance with beautiful Guinevere. Will the old-world magic of Merlin be enough to turn the tide of war in his favour?

431 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1995

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About the author

Bernard Cornwell

557 books16.7k followers
Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman, and his mother, who was English, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and brought up in Essex by the Wiggins family, who were members of the Peculiar People, a strict Protestant sect who banned frivolity of all kinds and even medicine. After he left them, he changed his name to his birth mother's maiden name, Cornwell.

Cornwell was sent away to Monkton Combe School, attended the University of London, and after graduating, worked as a teacher. He attempted to enlist in the British armed services at least three times but was rejected on the grounds of myopia.

He then joined BBC's Nationwide and was promoted to become head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland. He then joined Thames Television as editor of Thames News. He relocated to the United States in 1980 after marrying an American. Unable to get a green card, he started writing novels, as this did not require a work permit.

As a child, Cornwell loved the novels of C.S. Forester, chronicling the adventures of fictional British naval officer Horatio Hornblower during the Napoleonic Wars, and was surprised to find there were no such novels following Lord Wellington's campaign on land. Motivated by the need to support himself in the U.S. through writing, Cornwell decided to write such a series. He named his chief protagonist Richard Sharpe, a rifleman involved in most major battles of the Peninsular War.

Cornwell wanted to start the series with the Siege of Badajoz but decided instead to start with a couple of "warm-up" novels. These were Sharpe's Eagle and Sharpe's Gold, both published in 1981. Sharpe's Eagle was picked up by a publisher, and Cornwell got a three-book deal. He went on to tell the story of Badajoz in his third Sharpe novel, Sharpe's Company, published in 1982.

Cornwell and wife Judy co-wrote a series of novels, published under the pseudonym "Susannah Kells". These were A Crowning Mercy, published in 1983, Fallen Angels in 1984, and Coat of Arms (aka The Aristocrats) in 1986. (Cornwell's strict Protestant upbringing informed the background of A Crowning Mercy, which took place during the English Civil War.) In 1987, he also published Redcoat, an American Revolutionary War novel set in Philadelphia during its 1777 occupation by the British.

After publishing eight books in his ongoing Sharpe series, Cornwell was approached by a production company interested in adapting them for television. The producers asked him to write a prequel to give them a starting point to the series. They also requested that the story feature a large role for Spanish characters to secure co-funding from Spain. The result was Sharpe’s Rifles, published in 1987, and a series of Sharpe television films staring Sean Bean.

A series of contemporary thrillers with sailing as a background and common themes followed: Wildtrack published in 1988, Sea Lord (aka Killer's Wake) in 1989, Crackdown in 1990, Stormchild in 1991, and Scoundrel, a political thriller, in 1992.

In June 2006, Cornwell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's 80th Birthday Honours List.

Cornwell's latest work, Azincourt, was released in the UK in October 2008. The protagonist is an archer who participates in the Battle of Agincourt, another devastating defeat suffered by the French in the Hundred Years War. However, Cornwell has stated that it will not be about Thomas of Hookton from The Grail Quest or any of his relatives.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,405 reviews
Profile Image for Petrik.
687 reviews46k followers
August 2, 2017
4.5/5 Stars

Depending on the rest of the trilogy, this could be the most original and the best Arthurian legend retelling of all time, out of all medium.

A little background before I start my review; this is my first dive into Bernard Cornwell’s work and only my second time reading a historical fiction, so this is totally out of my comfort read but I’m delighted with my decision to go out of my usual read. I’ve heard of the name Bernard Cornwell several times until now, all pretty much claimed he’s a legend in ‘Historical Fiction’ genre but nothing ever truly pushed me into starting his books until last March when I finished binge reading the entire ‘The Faithful and the Fallen’ series. Both the series and the author (John Gwynne) since then have been included in my favorites of all time lists. I decided back then to do an interview with Gwynne and one of my questions was:

“If you have to recommend one book or series for everyone, what came into mind and why?”

His answer was 'The Warlord Chronicles' by Bernard Cornwell and that’s how I stumbled upon this series, and how I finally decided to give his work a try. Click this link for my full interview with Gwynne for anyone who’s interested. http://booknest.eu/component/k2/30-bl...

On to the review, even though this is still only the first book out of a trilogy, I can already see why Cornwell is named as a legend in the genre. He managed to make my most disliked narrative, omniscient narrative into something that worked wonderfully.

Told in the similar style with Kvothe from Kingkiller Chronicles, we follow Derfel Cadarn, the main character, and the narrator, now old and a monk, recounts his journey with Arthur, his best friend, The King that Never Was, The Enemy of God and The Lord of Battles.

“The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.”

Most of the stories told here took place in the past, going back to the present times only five times in total throughout the entire book. This also means that Derfel pretty much knows all the events that will happen already during his narration and he reminded us over and over again about this with sentences like “it’s not until later that I find out what he meant”. This usually doesn’t work in my fantasy read but damn it worked so well in this story.

The Winter King mostly focused on Arthur’s struggle to unite Britain during the Dark Ages in the midst of Saxon’s inevitable invasion. Cornwell’s retelling of Arthur is magnificent, contrary to usual Arthurian legend; Cornwell erased every magical aspect, at least here anyway. Sure there’s a hint of magic in the world but they’re not actual magic per se, just superstitions that the population back then heavily believed. Cornwell has stated that The Winter King is a tale of the Dark Ages in which legend and imagination must compensate for the lack of historical records, as there’s no conclusive evidence on Arthur’s legend and he did it with greatness.

Arthurian legend has always been one of my favorite retellings, it’s been done countless times already in any medium but I’ve never once experienced a retelling as original and fantastic as this one. Cornwell’s storytelling and prose qualities are top notches. So many emotions were felt and delivered throughout my times reading this, thought provoking and realistically poignant such as this

“And at the end of life, what does it all matter? We grow old and the young look at us and can never see that once we made a kingdom ring for love.”

or philosophical like this:

“But fate, as Merlin always taught us, is inexorable. Life is a jest of the Gods, Merlin liked to claim, and there is no justice. You must learn to laugh, he once told me, or else you'll just weep yourself to death.”

Not only the storytelling and prose are fantastic, Cornwell’s versions of the characters that we’ve known in the legend are very unique. Arthur, in particular, is amazing, felt like a real person that truly existed in the past despite this being written as a historical fiction. Also, a huge plus in originality towards Lancelot and Guinevere, for they have completely take on a direction that I never thought I would ever see in their character.

Do note however that this is a slow paced book, we only get a little taste of Cornwell’s big battle scenes (another factor that he’s highly praised for) in the last 60 pages of the book, if you love Shield-Wall, you’re going to love the battle scenes for sure.

Honestly, this could’ve been an easy 5-star book for me if it wasn’t for the first half of the book. The minor con I had with the book is that during the first half, the pages are very dense, a paragraph could last an entire page, with a minimum amount of dialogues. To give you a clear picture of what I’m talking about, here’s a picture of a paragraph I took from the book, non-spoiler of course

The first half of the book mostly looked like that, as you can see, there’s almost no heavy dialogue section and this means you’re going to have to read tons of details and descriptions. Plus, the long chapters (15 chapters for 490 pages) made this book not an easy read. I felt my progress reading this book became very slow because of these situations. These can be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences but personally, I prefer it to be balanced. The second half however fixed this problem.

Overall, I truly enjoyed reading The Winter King and I thank John Gwynne for recommending this book to me. I will definitely continue with this trilogy and I highly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction and Arthurian legend.

Bonus Picture: My beautiful editions of The Warlord Chronicles

You can find this and the rest of my Adult Epic/High Fantasy & Sci-Fi reviews at BookNest
Profile Image for Ryan.
42 reviews48 followers
April 18, 2007
I really can't say enough about this book. There are a lot of reasons to enjoy books and this one scores highest in so many categories. It is just very fun to read.

Who would I recommend this book to?
If you loved The Lord of the Rings but the smallest part of you that doesn't care about poetry kind of wished it had a little more action . . .
If you loved watching the movie Braveheart but wish it was a little more accurate historically . . .
If you were excited about the 2004 movie King Arthur, which although was advertised to be "the real story of King Arthur" had Arthur and his band of Mongolians defending the Scottish border against Saxons. The hell kind of sense does that make? Saxons invaded the South west coast, the region of England now called Saxony, the people Arthur would have fought on the Scottish border were, yes, you guessed it Scotts . . .
If you were excited ditto Tristan and Isolde . . .
If you loved Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series but don't have the eons required to read each with a 1000+ pages per volume . . .

I'll break down the idea behind the book. Yes, it's about King Arthur. And I know what you are thinking, "it's a magic book". No! there are no fairies, no pixie dust, no Crystal Cave (sorry Mary Stewart I loved your books too, but for slightly different reasons). The book does a real, researched job in telling a story which might have happened. Many of the characters believe in magic and things happen which might be interpreted as such but they might also be explained by realistic means.

It portrays Arthur as a warlord in around 500 AD right after the Romans abandoned their foothold in the British Isles and right before the Anglo-Saxon invasion turned the Celtic land of Britain into Angl-land (England). History indicates something stopped the Saxon invasion for about 50 years and most historians believe that might have been Arthur. There is also no jousting (a sport popular about 700 years later). The story is different from the traditional Arthur Legend but similar enough to make it enjoyable to people who also liked:
The Crystal Cave
The Once and Future King
Le Morte d'Arthur
and the many hundreds of others, film and book.

Oh, and I don't know who wrote the description which accompanies this book (probably someone at [www.amazon.com] but they say it is written in "flat American diction". I don't believe Bernard Cornwell, a native of Britain, would appreciate that. He might live in America currently but is still quite English. What they may have meant to say is that it is "readable". Why they didn't just say that I have no idea.
Profile Image for Peter.
472 reviews2,555 followers
September 26, 2019
The tale of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Galahad and his quest for the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Merlin and his sorcery, and the age of chivalry are the ingredients of medieval fantasy and folklore. Bernard Cornwell writes his account which feels the most authentic version I’ve encountered and turns many of these former images on their head. The resulting novel creates an imagined tale that feels legitimate and historical.

The story is told in the first person looking back in time, from the perspective of Dervel, a soldier and monk, who fought at Arthur’s side. As he starts to write his account, his loyalty to Arthur is apparent.
“These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur.”
The wonderful opportunity this structure provides is that the story of Arthur can be told from an onlooker seeing the positive and negative attribute of Arthur, his wins and his mistakes through a lens with less emotion and the benefit of distance. It also enables the location and existence of a lowly person to be painted in beautiful sensory detail, and the issues he faced dealing with many of the extensive iconic characters in this story.

The period is set in the late fifth century, shortly after the Romans left Briton, and the country is split into several regions each ruled by their own king. The Saxon conflicts are escalating and war from every side is commonplace. Cornwell creates an amazing atmosphere of medieval Briton that permeates through every aspect of the novel. The politics and machinations between the multiple power-hungry and warrior leaders are deep-rooted and persistent and every engagement is judged with caution and an expectation that ruthless and instant changes can and will occur. It is also a period where priests and druids battle with the conflict of Christianity and the old gods. The era of Merlin, magic and sorcery is coming to an end but they still hold considerable influence.

Arthur is the bastard son of Uther the Pendragon, very accomplished in battle, although not always given the credit. Uther’s legitimate grandson, Mordred (The Winter King), has a twisted foot which is taken as a bad omen. It's not the only thing that's twisted as he's a ruthless, evil and unforgiving personality that he doesn’t hide and unfortunately with an astute and cunning mind, may become a formidable force. Arthur still upholds his allegiance to Mordred, even though his vision of peace and justice is a polar opposite.

Bernard Cornwell claimed that this trilogy was his favourite and best piece of work. I haven’t read enough of his other works to make that comparison but if they’re better than this – well I have a lot to look forward to.

This is an outstanding example of the historical fiction genre and the best take on the iconic Arthur story I’ve read or watched. I would highly recommend this book and series.
Profile Image for Ira Perkins.
18 reviews38 followers
April 27, 2023
Astonishingly gritty, dark, and immersive, this isn't the King Arthur I remember from my childhood – but it's so much better! I can't wait to dive into the second book!

As someone who's usually immersed in the realms of high fantasy, I was a bit hesitant about diving into historical fiction. But as The Lonely Island once said: "yolo". So, I decided to give it a shot, and I'm pretty stoked that I did. Bernard Cornwell's "The Winter King" has made question why I didn't try historical fiction sooner! If you're a fellow fantasy lover who's curious about exploring the historical fiction genre, trust me, this book is a really good gateway - and I hear that the next few books in the series just get better and better.

Plot Summary
Diving into "The Winter King," I found myself immersed in a world of bloody battles, political intrigue, and compelling characters. Through the eyes of Derfel Cadarn, we witness King Arthur's efforts to unite Britain against the invading Saxons and navigate the treacherous waters of power and betrayal. The novel takes us on an exhilarating journey filled with surprising twists and turns, as we watch Arthur struggle to achieve his vision, all while wrestling with his own flaws and the complex web of relationships that surround him.

World Building: 5/5
My only previous experience with the King Arthur story was in watching the 1963 Disney movie "The Sword in the Stone" as a kid. A feel good story of the boy Arthur, with a dumbledore like Merlin and from what I can remember a lot of magic tea-cups and brooms. Warm, cosy, and hot cups of hot-chocolate come to mind. Get the picture? Good.

The warm cosy world of Disney's Sword in the Stone

The Arthurian world of "The Winter King" is the opposite of that.

The dark and brutal world of the winter king reminded me of the world in the boardgame Tainted Grail

It is set in the gritty, and harsh world of the Dark Ages. This is a time when life is unforgiving, and the struggle for power and survival is a brutal reality.... Brutal & dark are the right words...Cornwell doesn't shy away from the grim details of warfare, political machinations, and the harshness of everyday life in this tumultuous era. The world he creates is filled with muddy battlefields, imposing fortresses, and the ever-present threat of treachery lurking in the shadows. I just couldn't get over how Cornwell presented me with this unflinchingly raw and believable setting that's as captivating as it is brutal (there's that word again). Despite being set on earth, it felt like I'd been transported to a different realm - although, unlike the Disney world, not one that I would like to inhabit!

“The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.”

Characters: 5/5
I must have lied above when I said that my only experience of King Arthur was that Disney movie. Because I knew the names and stories of many of the main characters in this book already, although I can't remember where I learnt them.

Much of the enjoyment I got out of the familiar legendary figures in this book was in how the author challenged many of the romanticized preconceptions I (and I presume other readers) had from other retellings. Arthur, often portrayed as the idealized, untarnished hero, is instead presented as a complex, flawed, yet charismatic leader, making him a refreshing and relatable protagonist. I also found myself drawn to Merlin, the enigmatic wizard, who is depicted as a cunning, ruthlessly honest and strategic figure, rather than simply a wise old bumbling wizard. Nimue, the enchantress, and Guinevere, the queen, both defy the stereotypes often associated with their roles; they're strong, intelligent, and fiercely independent women who play pivotal roles in the story, earning them a place among reader favorites... And Lancelot? He's a liar and a coward! Cornwell's ability to revamp these iconic characters and confound our expectations really added to the immersive experience for me in this book. I tip my hat to him for that!

Nimue - by Berber Mijangos

Plot: 2.5/5
One downside of the in-depth character and world-building was that the pacing was often painfully slow, with the narrative frequently meandering into what I like to refer as "side-quest territory". At times, I found myself wondering where the overarching story was heading, and whether the book's focus on these side stories was a result of the author being constrained by the familiarity of the Arthurian legend.

Thankfully, the narrative did become more focused in the final stretch of the book, culminating in an intense, gripping battle scene that showcases Cornwell's talent for storytelling. However, I couldn't help but feel that it was too little, too late, as much of the book had been spent on what felt like an extended introduction.

That being said, there is a silver lining: with the characters and world now firmly established, I've heard that the story truly takes off in the second book of the series.

“How much of our earth has been wet by blood because of jealousy! And at the end of life, what does it all matter? We grow old and the young look at us and can never see that once we made a kingdom ring for love.”

Writing Style: 4/5
Cornwell has a way with words that is both descriptive and engaging. He doesn't shy away from the nitty-gritty, and his descriptions of battles and scenery are so vivid, you can almost smell the blood and feel the cold wind on your face. This level of detail really helped me get lost in the story and form a connection with the characters. The dialogue, too, is sharp and natural, and the occasional dash of humor was a welcome touch.

“But fate, as Merlin always taught us, is inexorable. Life is a jest of the Gods, Merlin liked to claim, and there is no justice. You must learn to laugh, he once told me, or else you'll just weep yourself to death.”

Enjoyment: 3.5/5
Venturing into historical fiction for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed "The Winter King" as a high fantasy enthusiast. While it shattered my childhood illusions of Arthur and his merry knights, I've come to appreciate this darker, more grounded version of the legend. It feels more realistic and, as an adult, more relatable.

Bernard Cornwell's vivid portrayal of a gritty yet captivating world gripped me from the start, and I couldn't help but be drawn into the complex, flawed characters and their struggles. However, the main reason I read fiction is not for the world-building or the characters, its for the story. And so I just hope that now we've been introduced to this richly imagined universe, that the story will truly take flight in the upcoming installments

Final Rating: 4.0/5 🌕🌕🌕🌕🌑

My favourite books of 2023 in preferential order
1. The Shadow of the Gods - (My Review)
2. The Lies of Locke Lamora
3. Kings of the Wyld - (My Review)
4. Red Seas Under Red Skies - (My Review)
5. The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World
6. Golden Son
7. Leviathan Wakes - (My Review)
8. The Winter King - (My Review)
9. Gardens of the Moon - (My Review)
10. The Song of Achilles - (My Review)
11. Red Sister - (My Review)
12. Babel: An Arcane History - (My Review)
Profile Image for Bionic Jean.
1,256 reviews1,130 followers
September 14, 2023
Why is this written in such a dry, boring narrative style? Bernard Cornwell's books can be exciting and full of period detail that really engage the reader. This one is sadly not like that. There is a helpful list of characters and places (and map) at the front of the book, for those of us unfamiliar with all the Welsh names. I dutifully consulted this every time a new name was mentioned but after 50 pages was just so very bored by it all. Where's the action? All reported. Where's the conversation? Non-existent. The device of having a narrator, Derfel, just didn't work for me, although the events described sounded exciting enough. Please show, don't tell, Mr Cornwell. I had really been looking forward to reading this book.
Profile Image for Celeste.
933 reviews2,381 followers
July 29, 2017
Full review now posted!
Original review can be found at Booknest.

Here lies a book that didn’t enthrall me, but somehow fascinated me. I wasn’t filled with longing to pick it up and continue reading, but every time I did I was given incredibly interesting theories and historical information. This was likely the most probable telling of the Arthurian legend that I’ve come across. The mythos of Arthur and Merlin and Excalibur and Camelot has always intrigued me, but it’s always remained in the realm of myth. For the first time in my life, I read something that convinced me of the possibility of Arthur’s existence. Not its likelihood, mind you, but its possibility, which is still an astonishing change for me regarding a myth.

Cornwell sets his tale in the 5th century, after the Roman occupation of Britain has ended. Saxons are invading and Britons are warring amongst themselves. This is a land of warring factions and a multitude of kings, and this is where Cornwell has planted his version of Arthur. Here, Arthur’s tale is told by Brother Derfel, an aging monk who wasn’t always a Christian. In his youth, Derfel was a pagan and a warrior who fought alongside Arthur. In the framework of Cornwall’s story, Derfel is writing out the true story of Arthur for Igraine, the young Queen over the realm that houses the monastery. Witnessing Arthur’s story from an eyewitness, and one who isn’t one of the names we’re familiar with, was a unique perspective. And trying to reconcile Derfel himself, the aging Christian monk and the young pagan warrior, is actually one of my favorite aspects of the novel. How radically people can change always intrigues me.

There were some people Cornwell portrayed here that were at complete odds with almost everything I’ve ever read or heard. Particularly, his representation of Guinevere and Lancelot. Even though they were pretty people, neither of them seemed to have much goodness within them. Guinevere here is a catalyst for war, much like Helen of Troy. I will never be able to fathom shattering a kingdom in the name of love, though I know it’s one of the most ancient of justifications for declarations of war. And Lancelot is just awful, though I’m still not sure how many of his failings are truth and how many are exaggerated through the eyes of our narrator. However, a hero he is not, though he knows how to twist events in the minds of poets to ensure his legacy.

The presentation of the Druid belief system was my other favorite aspect of this book. Their superstitions and “spell casting” were absolutely fascinating. And disturbing. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that contained this much spitting. Or urine-flinging. Or cow dung as hair product. And the Druid’s view of the Christian interlopers, and the way those opposing faiths both widened the rift in their land and how the people banded together in battle in spite of those opposing faiths, was captivating. One of the main reasons I’ll be continuing the trilogy at some later date is to understand how Derfel transitioned from one faith to the other.

Even though I have a deep appreciation for both the story and Cornwell’s writing, I have to admit that I struggled reading this. It was just so dense. The information was interesting, for sure, but sometimes I felt so glutted by the outpouring of information that I couldn’t digest quickly enough to keep reading. Cornwell did an insane amount of research, and it really shows. I feel like I learned so much about the Druid faith and ancient Britain, but that learning sometimes overwhelmed the story. The book reminded me of some of the really amazing history books I read in college. Well written and fascinating, but too dense to read for simple enjoyment. Also, it felt a little like the vast majority of the book was either preparing for battle, engaging in battle, or the aftermath of battle. Which is fine, but is something I get really bogged down in.

If you love historical fiction, this is definitely the book for you. If you’re obsessed with Arthurian legend, you owe it to yourself to give this a read. And if you just can’t get enough of battlefields, I think I found your new favorite book.

I read this because Petrik loved the series so much.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
February 22, 2016
Nobody does this quite as well as Bernard Cornwell. He is quite literally the master of this genre. He creates a vivid warrior culture time and time again, and I will never get bored of it. This is saying a lot because Bernard Cornwell has written a huge amount of novels over the years and a few are similar in ways, but I don’t care because they’re just so good. This time Bernard Cornwell tells the story of Arthur, though not from the perspective of Arthur; he tells it from the point of view of one of his footman.

An interesting take on the Arthurian myth

Derfel is a spearman in the service of Arthur and he narrates Arthur’s story. I’m glad that we weren’t privy to Arthur’s thoughts and emotion because it helped to create an idea about him being an untouchable being. What I mean is that Arthur is better than the common man, and by telling the story like this it assumes a sense of distance between someone like Derfel, who in himself is honourable, and someone who is, in essence, a man beyond measure. It created an Arthur that was as enigmatic as he was courageous and noble. I think it was a great idea.

This is an awakening change to what I thought would be the predictable route of a novel like this. We see the events, and people, that surround Arthur’s life from a different perspective. One that holds Arthur in high esteem, but in spite of this, we also see the mistakes Arthur makes as a commander. He takes the wrong bride in a moment of selfish passion and almost dooms himself in the process. I emphasise the word mistakes because this is not the usual Camelot fairy tale; this is a gritty realistic approach to the legend.

More historical than legend


This is a tale that has been told countless times, but to make it stand out Cornwell had to make his retelling unique. In his version Lancelot is a fraud and Guinevere is quite possibly a complete whore who entrapped Arthur for power, not love; thus, this is far from the usual fairy tale. The characters are realistic and not without their flaws, so they are human and fallible. This is a far shot form the knights of the round table and the pure virtuous that Arthur represents. This made this novel not remotely predictable or a simple regurgitation of a tale we already know.

The movement of Christianity through the reduction of the druids is also apparent. It is intriguing to see the rivalries created by these religious differences. I like the way the Druid’s, though relying on and believing in magic, appear to have no magical abilities but are driven by what they perceive as their magic powers and knowledge. I think Cornwell has been very subtle here because without openly suggesting that their magic was impossible, he does show us that their magic is slowly fading. This gives the novel a more realistic setting, a more historical setting, rather than the usual fantastical nature of tales surrounding Arthur Pendragon.

I enjoyed this novel, but not as much as those in the Saxon Stories. Derfel lacks the charisma and will of Uhtred. And for that reason I gave this a four star rating rather than the five it could have earnt.

Profile Image for William Gwynne.
376 reviews1,706 followers
July 6, 2021
I now have a YouTube channel that I run with my brother, called 'The Brothers Gwynne'. Check it out - The Brothers Gwynne

“The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.”

If you love stories consisting of memorable characters you love and despise, fantastic storytelling, stunning action sequences and moral lessons, then you will adore this historical telling of the chronicles of Arthur and the story of his life.

The Winter King is the first book in The Warlord Chronicles which is a unique take on the story of Arthur during the dark ages. I have always loved the tales of Arthur and his warriors, and this is not an exception. It is the best book I have read which has the story of Arthur as its main concept.

“Fate is inexorable."

Cornwell chooses certain aspects and adapts others from the common stories so the reader cannot predetermine the events which shall occur, and so the story which is told is a new one. He produces this book in a masterful style overflowing with immersive action and fantastic characters.

The sole point of view is Derfel, was born a Saxon but raised a Briton in the kingdom of Dumnonia, which is a kingdom residing in southern Briton. He features as the main character in the Winter King. He is a man who values loyalty and kindness, and proves it many times. It is hard not to fall in love with him as the stories progress and you witness his faults and virtues.

The prose of Bernard Cornwell is superb as the description and storytelling flows brilliantly. It is fluid and smooth making it an easy job to continue reading this large book as the plot line constantly develops in a manner which disallowed me from being bored at any point.

The Winter King is a definite five star rating in my opinion due to one of my favourite writing styles I have encountered and the way it captured many of my favourite aspects in stories.

Impending exams are absorbing most of my leisure time, but almost every moment of freedom I have gained in the last few days consisted of me reading this. It took a serious level of self-control to resist devouring this novel with a few long sittings.

This is one of, if not my favourite historical fiction novel I have had the pleasure to read and I shall be instantly be borrowing my father’s copy of Enemy of God, which is the second book of this series.

My extended BookNest review:

The Winter King - BookNest
Profile Image for Charles  van Buren.
1,769 reviews194 followers
July 21, 2023
Arthur struggles against himself

The first volume in Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur saga. A little hard for me to read as I know that the dream fails in the end. (Insert lyrics from Man of La Mancha - To dream the impossible dream To fight the unbeatable foe....)

However it is very well written with believable characters and plot. One twist is that Lancelot is a duplicitous, dishonorable, craven coward who pays bards to sing his praises as a bold, skilled, great warrior. As a child, Lancelot was my favorite character but this view of him made me think it through and realize that it makes the whole Arthur legend more believable.
Profile Image for Philip Allan.
Author 12 books371 followers
December 10, 2022
Cornwell is best known for his Sharpe Napoleonic adventure stories and his Last Kingdom series, but it is his Warlord trilogy, of which this book is the first, that he is most proud. This is his take on the Arthurian legends, but do not expect a glossy fantasy. This is a gritty, realistic portrayal of Dark Age Britain. It is a land when the daily struggle for survival takes place amongst the crumbling ruins of Roman Britain; where Druids keep faith to the old gods in the face of growing Christianity; and where the remaining British Kingdoms squabble amongst themselves in the face of Saxon invaders from the east and Irish raiders from the west.

The figures of legend, like Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot are present, but they are flawed, and believable. If Camelot existed, then in the Winter King it would be a hill fort with earth ditches and a thatched meeting hall at its heart. We see these troubled times through the eyes of Derfel Cadarn, a Saxon foundling who becomes a spearman in Arthur’s warband. Like all Cornwell’s work it has a pacy narrative, but every so often we catch a glimpse of a person or incident we can recognise will grow into one of the strands of the romanticised Arthurian legends we are so familiar with today. Thoroughly enjoyable stuff.
Author 4 books118 followers
September 16, 2017
This is my favorite Cornwell series (it's Cornwell's too), for it covers my favorite historical era--that mysterious gap in between the Roman departure and the Saxon Invasion. This retelling of Arthur works so well because it's divorced from Mallory.

I love BC's ability to pull me into the muddy, primitive Dark Age Britain world. He's one of the very best at avoiding anachronisms, a skill which gets so little praise. None of his characters feel like modernistic men and women dressed up in 5th Century garb. They fear the powers of magic, gods, and fate. The majority of the people are ignorant, living in dirty hovels with no boots. The world is vast and mysterious.

The line-by-line writing is excellent, as are the story arcs of this tale.

Highly suggest this series, as well as most of BC's work.
Profile Image for Overhaul.
317 reviews702 followers
June 18, 2023
Los romanos por fin han abandonado Britania, y enseguida se ha desencadenado una lucha a muerte para cubrir el vacío de poder y, al mismo tiempo, los sajones aguardan en la frontera la ocasión para invadir el país. La muerte del rey supremo, Uther Pendragon, dejando como heredero al trono a Mordred, aún un bebé, no hace sin o complicar la situación y acabar con el último atisbo de unidad.

Sólo un hombre es capaz de hacerse cargo de la tutela del niño y evitar así que el reino caiga en manos de sajones o acabe arrasado por las luchas intestinas, y ese hombre es un hijo ilegítimo de Pendragon que vive en el exilio, un guerrero mítico protegido por el mago Merlín que responde al nombre de Arturo.

Puntuación: ⚔️❄️⚔️💀⚔️

Sumergirse en estas páginas es entrar en un mundo violento y despiadado, en una época convulsa de batallas, luchas y emboscadas, en las que de vez en cuando surgen personajes tan fascinantes como la reina Ginebra o el enigmático Lancelot, y el talento narrativo de Bernard Cornwell consigue que el lector sienta el peso de la cota de malla, oiga el fragor del combate y se lance a la carrera hacia un desenlace inesperado.

En esta primera entrega de las Crónicas del señor de la guerra, Derfel, uno de los guerreros a las órdenes de Arturo que sirve de hilo conductor de la historia, adentra al lector en una época convulsa de sangre, fuego y acero.

El mundo oscuro y brutal del rey de invierno.

No sólo la estupenda narración y la prosa son fantásticas, las versiones de Cornwell de los personajes que hemos conocido en la leyenda son únicas.

Arturo, en particular, es asombroso, se sintió como una persona real que realmente existió en el pasado a pesar de estar escrito como una ficción histórica.

Además, una gran ventaja en originalidad hacia Lancelot y Guinevere, han tomado una dirección que jamás pensé que vería en sus personajes.

Está ambientado en el mundo arenoso, frío y duro de la Edad Media. Este es un momento en el que la vida no perdona, y la lucha por el poder, la ambición y la supervivencia es una realidad brutal.

Crudo, brutal y oscuro. Cornwell no rehuye los sombríos detalles de la guerra, narrado de una manera que sólo los maestros hacen y eso que en este primer libro solo hay un par de ellas, ahora viene lo bueno, las maquinaciones políticas, y la dureza de la vida cotidiana en esta época tumultuosa.

El mundo que crea está lleno de campos de batalla fangosos, fortalezas imponentes y la amenaza siempre presente de la traición que acecha en las sombras.

Bernard Cornwell nos introduce este entorno como el acero, inquebrantablemente crudo y creíble, tan cautivador como brutal.

Se centró en la lucha de Arturo para unir Gran Bretaña durante la Edad Media en medio de la inevitable invasión de Saxon. El recuento de Cornwell de Arturo es magnífico, contrario a la leyenda artúrica; Cornwell borró todos los aspectos mágicos.

Claro que hay toques de magia en el mundo, pero no son magia real per se, solo antiguas supersticiones en las que la población en ese entonces creía firmemente.

"El rey del invierno" es un cuento de la Edad Media en el que la leyenda y la imaginación deben compensar toda la falta de registros históricos, no hay pruebas concluyentes sobre la leyenda de Arturo y lo hizo con gran éxito y dedicación.

Soberbio. Es un maestro..✍️
Profile Image for Mayra Sigwalt.
Author 2 books2,201 followers
February 23, 2016
Primeira leitura: 2008
Releitura: 02/2016

Acho que essa é uma leitura muito recomendada para os fãs de As Crônicas de Gelo e Fogo. Com a vantagem q os livros são mais curtos e você só tem um ponto de vista, então a história anda bem mais rápido.
Acho q os fãs das lendas Arturianas talvez amem ou odeiem, pois esse é um retrato muito mais cru e humano de Artur. Eu amo. Mas aqui toda a magia e romance medieval é substituído por um retrato muito mais provável do que realmente teria acontecido naquela época. O que pra mim é fascinante! No entanto, para alguns, pode ser um pouco chocante a forma como os personagens não são totalmente bons ou ruins (como fomos acostumados a ouvir). Nem Artur, nem o Merlin, nem Guinevere.
A leitura é muito fluida e Derfel é um narrador que vc facilmente se apega. As batalhas são de roer todas as unhas e os cenários pulam da página.
Quase 10 anos depois e continuo apaixonada.
Profile Image for Melki.
6,037 reviews2,387 followers
February 6, 2014
The horn sounded a third time, and suddenly I knew I would live, and I was weeping for joy and all our spearmen were half crying and half shouting and the earth was shuddering with the hooves of those Godlike men who were riding to our rescue.

For Arthur, at last, had come.


Presenting a saga so epic it needs three pages to list the characters, two pages to mention the places and another two pages of maps! And you know what? The story was so involving, I never once glanced at any of them.

I loved, loved, loved this book!

Here is a familiar tale, made fresh and exciting. Here we have Arthur, the just and fair, brave Galahad and cowardly Lancelot, hiding behind his mother's skirts. All the old favorites get to mix it up with some new characters. And of course, Merlin gets all the best lines:

"That's why the Gods made it such a pleasure to engender children, because so many of the little brutes have to be replaced. "

"One of the things I can't stand about Christians is their admiration of meekness. Imagine elevating meekness into a virtue! Meekness! Can you imagine a heaven filled with only the meek?
What a dreadful idea. The food would get cold while everyone passed the dishes to everyone else."

Happily, there are two more books in the Arthur series.
Cornwell, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Profile Image for Chris Lee.
114 reviews38 followers
May 6, 2023
When I went to a local used bookstore to look for The Winter King, I was pleased to find quite a few copies in varying disarray on the shelf. In typical fashion, I picked up the dingiest of the three. These usually have fun scribblings, underlined passages, and, most important of all, they are broken in.

To my surprise as I finished the book, there was a written review on the last page that was just incredible. It’s so great, in fact, I’ll just post it here. Take it away, Karen.

──∗ ⋅◈⋅ ∗──  ⚔️ ──∗ ⋅◈⋅ ∗──

This was EPIC, and when I say EPIC, I mean Every Page Is Classic! It’s like one part lesson and two parts action. Do you remember sitting in history class and the teacher was like, blah, blah, blah, this is medieval history, and times were tough? Total eye-glazer. Well, if they just had us read this, it would have made much more of an impact! I mean, who doesn’t like King Arthur? He’s ubertalented with a sword and even keeled while leading his men. I can’t tell you how many times I welled up while reading this story. I hope you felt the same-way after the last page.

I’m turning this into a used book store so someone else can stumble across it and take in its beauty.

Your fellow book-lover,
Karen Womack ‘01

──∗ ⋅◈⋅ ∗── 🛡️ ──∗ ⋅◈⋅ ∗──

Mission accomplished, Karen. Lovely review! There is absolutely nothing else to add. The only thing I can do is return it to the store I picked it up at so others can stumble across it as well. I might have added a * at the front that says stay until the end for a pleasant review. :)

(I’ll definitely get another copy so that I can re-read it in the future!)

──∗ ⋅◈⋅ ∗──   5 ★'s   ──∗ ⋅◈⋅ ∗──
Profile Image for Wick Welker.
Author 6 books382 followers
June 7, 2021
An absolute masterpiece of characterization and story telling.

Ok... Whoa... This is one of the best books I've read in a really long time.

The tl,dr is that you should move this book up your queue immediately and get ready for some of the best story telling you'll ever experience. Cornwell pulls off a masterful balance of characterization, plot development, pacing, lore and world building. Cornwell achieves that coveted perfect balance of a story that is both driven by plot and characterization culminating in a breath-taking resolution.

The Winter King is told from a first person perspective by an orphan raised within Merlin's estate. With our narrator, Derfel, you will experience not only his growth as an observer and actor in this Arthurian saga, but you'll see an entire cascade of character development among kings, druids, peasants, warriors and Arthur himself. There is beauty, sadness and growth that follows these characters, along with growth of medieval Britain. You'll learn to love and cherish Derfel not only as a narrator, but a man who grows through misery, loss, love, worship and war. You'll come away loving Derfel like he is a real person and not just a character on the page.

The characterization of Arthur is truly something to behold. While seeing himself as a pragmatic peace-maker, Arthur tows a very thin line of would-be ruler versus protector of the realm. He is both virtuous and villainous as his peaceful idealism of brotherhood clashes with his unwillingness to give up peripheral power. He believes his actions to be inherently in the best interests of uniting Britain... only if that unity includes himself as a major player. He is heroic and likeable, but also foolish and naive. While he has maintained some civility with his countrymen, his very own foibles lead to the loss of the very men that he wishes to protect. Cornwell has taken the iconic figure of Arthur and molded him into the epic hero full of folly and misguided idealism. He is a truly dynamic character. To quote Arthur himself:

"I wanted to do such great things, Derfel, such great things. And in the end it was I who betrayed them, wasn't it?"

Just to make something clear: this book is brutal toward women. There is sexual assault, sex slavery, servitude and mass objectification of woman everywhere. This book is raw, gritty, violent and stomach churning. All of this brutality toward women is true to the world-building of the dark age era. I did not find it overtly gratuitous or indulgent. In fact, the constant misogyny served to beautifully contrast the incredible women in this book. I'm talking about Nimue. Nimue might be one of my favorite female characters I've ever read. A druid and apprentice of Merlin, this woman grows from a young sorceress into a powerful mage. She suffers every brutalization known to a woman including starving to death on a prison isle. She represents the endurance and adaptability of women living under the unfettered tyranny of male dominion. Salient is this exchange between Nimue and Arthur, emphasizing the misogyny of the man who is supposed to be the hero:

"She was an ill-used woman," Arthur said.
"All women are," Nimue said.
"No,"Arthur insisted. "Maybe most people are, but not all women any more than all men."

This is a story about changing culture, changing power and changing religions. It is a culture clash of the Britains, the Saxons and the Franks and the boiling over of their different power structures as manifested by their religions. At the forefront is the ever dueling exchange between the old world paganism versus the Christian upstarts. There is deep identity crisis happening over all of nascent England as these forces merge at the nexus of Britain, Arthur and Merlin himself. Is there a magic system in these pages? Perhaps. Or is sorcery just another power structure of the druids, keeping men in check by their superstitions and fear of the unknown?

The battles are incredible. Tactics, strategy, bravery and cowardice are the story told with the battles over the heart of Britain. You'll find honer within foes and brotherhood with old enemies. Oath keeping is the fabric of civilization; the breaking of which causes alliances to topple.

There's a lot more I can say about what made The Winter King such an incredible story. I highly, highly recommend this to anyone. I will be adding this to my masterpiece shelf and look forward to the sequels. Cornwell is a master.
Profile Image for Shannon.
901 reviews235 followers
August 24, 2023
This is a mix of legend and History, and, King Arthur will probably always be that way since there's so much info. missing.

In this tale the focus is open the original Britons fighting the influx/invasion of Saxons and dealing with the petty British kingdoms. All want to rule and there are a number of very detailed and well-written battles.

First person POV.

The typical cast isn't what it appears to be. For instance, Lancelot is a coward and villain whose bards paint him differently.

The interpersonal relationships are marvelous.


STORY/PLOTTING: B plus to A minus; CHARACTERS/DIALOGUE: A minus to A; ACTION SCENES: B plus to A minus; HISTORICAL FOCUSES/ACCURACY: B plus; OVERALL GRADE: B plus to A minus; WHEN READ: 2005 (read three times) (revised review 1/4/13)
Profile Image for Liene.
95 reviews1,751 followers
January 17, 2023
Allen, I see you fuming - just take a breath, it’ll be okay.
I was told this was Cornwell’s best.
Well, I concurrently started two other Cornwell books and they were much better.
I was told I could not love The Wolf by Leo Carew and dislike this.
Well, I can, and do.
This book was like if Harry Potter was told by Seamus Finnegan, who was obviously not present for and not personally attached to the events of those books. This book is like if a chef were trying his dishes and going hmm needs salt, only the dishes are scenes and the salt is rape.
This book is like if someone thought “Dark Ages” meant you could write any kind of wild nonsense you wanted about pagans because, who knows, maybe they did piss and bleed on everything and call it religion.
This book is like the scene in Monty Python, where they find a carving on the wall giving an account of what’s happened that also includes “aaaargggghhhh” even though, as someone rightly points out, it doesn’t seem likely they would bother to carve what was happening to them presently.
This book was a bloody boring slog. This was not a fascinating subversion of the Arthur myth (maybe that comes in later installments). This is not an engrossing personal history with fleshed out characters you come to care for. This is not an exciting and action packed story - a lot of the war/battle happens off screen. This is not an examination of how a flawed and deeply human individual got turned into something noble and heroic by legend - Arthur, according to our chronicler, was pretty special.
Lastly, I just want to say - Justice for Lancelot, he deserved better (I, as the reader, also deserved better - reading about a useless twat whose mommy has fooled everyone that’s actually fighting in battles into thinking he’s a hero because of poetic propaganda is uninteresting and also beggars belief).
Profile Image for Edward.
377 reviews1,011 followers
September 4, 2021
SO good being back in dark-ages Britain. (Never thought I'd say that.) I'd forgotten how good Cornwell's battle-sequences are, and not to mention his superb villains.
Profile Image for P.L. Stuart.
Author 3 books413 followers
December 28, 2021
King Arthur fans rejoice!!! When one of your favorite authors writes about one of your favorite subjects - Arthurian legend - you can only drool with anticipation about how good the book might be. There was certainly no let-down whatsoever with "The Winter King", first book in "The Warlord Chronicles", by Cornwell. I have read almost everything Cornwell has written, from "Sharpe", to the works he is perhaps most famous for, "The Last Kingdom" series, and I love watching the Netflix adaptation. But the entire "Warlord Chronicles" including "The Winter King" is something very special. No one brings the concept of what ancient Britain could be like to life the way Cornwell does. I loved the thrilling battle scene which occurs near the book's conclusion, and even though Cornwell is noted for being the king of battlefield description, this one is may be one of his best, and that means be ready to be awed! I was fascinated when Cornwell wrote Lancelot as a feckless, cowardly, and conniving bad-guy, and it was a great twist, as most of the legends paint him as a - albeit flawed - noble and righteous hero. Derfel, the protagonist, gives us a wonderful, well-rounded perspective on the great Arthur and all the legendary figures who surround him, making them seem vividly real. The perceived war of "Old Gods" magic versus the Christian God, which essentially is between Merlin and his acolytes versus the Christian clergy and followers is fascinating, and represents the "magical" elements of the story. Its all very subtle, believable, and extremely well-done. This book / series is a self-proclaimed favorite of the author, Cornwell, and I have to agree! "The Winter King" is one of the best books I have ever read. Only shame is that I can only give it a five star rating, and not more than that. Read the whole series, continuing with "Enemy of God" and concluding with "Excalibur". You will not be disappointed.
Profile Image for Amanda Hupe.
953 reviews58 followers
December 6, 2020
“I learned that the joy and the fear are the exact same things, the one merely transformed into the other by action…”

Tales of King Arthur have been told for over a thousand years. Everyone knows the tale. This last summer I tackled as many King Arthur stories as possible. All of them had an element of fantasy in them. Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King takes on a more historical approach. The tale is told by Derfel, a man who served under Arthur. He desperately wants to write the truth and not the romance and tall tales that have spread over time. He begins with the reign of Uther after the Romans have abandoned Britain, Merlin has vanished, and Uther has banished Arthur for he blames him for his son’s death. Finally, he gets his heir, Mordred. When Uther dies, Mordred is just a baby. So allies come together to protect the future king. Arthur, being the strongest warrior takes the lead but swears to see Mordred to the throne. But lust and political intrigue will ignite war…

No one and I mean no one can write battles and historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell. The research he puts into his novels is always fantastic. He takes us to the time of Britain when tribes were at war and fighting the Saxons and I was absolutely immersed. Not only does he bring to life the unforgettable characters like Arthur, Merlin, and Mordred, we also get to see real historical figures like Agricola. But the best part is the political intrigue of the time. The Romans brought with them Christianity, but many people still follow the Old Ways. These religious differences affect politics, just like they do today.

Now, Arthur is pretty typical. He is honest, courageous, and his honor means a great deal to him. Merlin is batty and wise. Then, there are the women of the story. Morgana, Nimue, and Guinevere are the most fascinating characters in the story. Every woman in the story makes their life decisions for survival. Nimue is a force! I went back and forth with Guinevere. At one moment, I loved her, and then the next, I hated her. She could be so superficial. Many may hate her for how conniving she could be, but what choice did she really have? The women who went along with what they were told to do ended up miserable, tortured and killed. She went after what she wanted, to be Queen, yes, but also to survive and be comfortable in life. I couldn’t really blame her for that. I felt that the women were the true stars of this first installment. I can’t wait to see what book two, Enemy of God, and book three, Excalibur hold! This book gets 5 out of 5 stars. Nothing less for Bernard Cornwell!
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,067 reviews239 followers
December 17, 2020
“Our whole line surged forward and scarred swords hammered at the enemy with a new energy. The silver horn, so pure and clear, called again and again, a hunting call to the slaughter, and each time it sounded our men pressed forward into the branches of the felled trees to cut and stab and scream at the enemy who, suspecting some trickery, glanced nervously around the vale as they defended themselves.”

This is one of the best books I have read on Arthurian legend. It is epic in scope, and contains a wonderful mixture of history, strategy, battles, political intrigues, alliances, and relationships. All the key players are here, including Guinevere, Mordred, Galahad, Lancelot, and Merlin, though some are not in their traditional roles. It envisions them as real people living in a real time, without employing elements of fantasy or magic.

It is told from the perspective of Derfel, looking back on his life as one of Arthur’s commander-warriors. Derfel was a Saxon slave brought up by Merlin in the Celtic traditions. In his later years, Derfel converted to Christianity, but at the time of his service to Arthur, he was a pagan and Mithraist. Many religions are colliding at this time, particularly various pagans, Druids, and Christians. Thus, Derfel is in a position to shed light on many aspects of medieval life – rituals, superstitions, and celebrations.

Cornwell attempts to peel away the layers of myth, resulting in a tale that conveys a feeling of authenticity. If Arthur existed, he is easily envisioned as acting as he does in this tale. For example: “Arthur confuses morality with power, and he worsens the mix by always believing that people are inherently good, even the worst of them, and that is why, mark my words, he will never have peace. He longs for peace, he talks of peace, but his own trusting soul is the reason he will always have enemies.”

The author has come up with a historical approach to a period of scant documentation – it has been lost to time. He uses genuine names of regions, leaders, and warring factions. Of course, warfare is almost constant, so alpha males are in the forefront, but this book is not lacking in strong female characters. I felt engrossed in the story from beginning to end.

Cornwell identifies historical fact versus fictional portrayals in the Author’s Notes at the end. Published in 1995, this is the first book in a trilogy, but has an independently satisfying ending. I do not normally read sequels, but I will make an exception for this set.
Profile Image for Conor.
148 reviews315 followers
August 14, 2014
4.5 stars

The legend of Arthur has been told time and again over the centuries. From ancient British folk tales to 5 season of 'Merlin', from 15th Century French verse to 'The Mists of Avalon'. With this book Cornwell has left his mark on that tradition. He's taken a tale examined from almost every angle and made it his own. Most of all he's written a story filled with complicated characters, visceral battles and ambitious intrigues in a brutal, immersive setting.

The protagonist of this story is Derfel Cadarn. A humble, straight-forward soldier Derfel is in a position to observe the complicated characters involved in the military and political struggles to decide the fate, and faith (lol @ puns) of Britain. Derfel also gives us an engaging insight into the terror and exhilaration of fighting in a shield wall. These sections, which bring to life the mud, blood, exhaustion, fear and pain of frontline combat are some of the most intense of the book. The framing device, with Derfal now an old monk telling his story, created some extremely poignant moments.

Arthur is extremely well-written, although his character sometimes feels too noble, especially given how bleak the rest of this world is. To be fair, Arthurian legend usually holds Arthur up as the pinnacle of all that is right and in this series Cornwell portrays him as the one hope for goodness in a world filled with evil. For all of his saintliness (although saints in this book are often knobs Coughs* Sansum Coughs*) Arthur's vanity, ambition and occasional reckless idealism made him more than a 2-D representation of heroism and instead showed him to be a flawed, realistic character, making his struggles all the more powerful.

In the early stages of this book I found Owain (the old king's champion) to be a brilliantly written character, a complex villain and a great source of conflict. On one hand Owain was a great warrior who was generous and kind to the men under his command (including Derfal) on the other hand he was openly corrupt, raped a captive woman (this was a disturbingly frequent occurrence in the story, at times the frequency of rape went beyond realistic in this setting and into being gratuitous) and mercilessly slaughtered a defenceless village to line his own pockets. .

In contrast Lancelot was a character with all the depth and complexity of a WWE villain (or 'heel' for those of you in the know...). Lancelot was shown to be vain, cowardly, arrogant, bullying and manipulative. Cornwell made a few half-hearted attempts at making him sympathetic and realistic but vague references to him only being a tool to Derfal because he fears him and his kindness to people who don't threaten him were never actually shown in the text and as a result don't have any real impact. In any situation he could be counted on to do the worst thing possible and this lack of complexity made the absence of Owain all the more obvious.

The setting in this book, often stark and bleak, was brought to life brilliantly. The violence, turmoil and savagery of Dark Ages Britain were captured perfectly. Cornwell captured this sense of danger even better than Iggulden in 'Genghis'. The impact of religion was explored intelligently in this book as well. The conflict between druidism and Christianity and the effect it had on politics was well-handled. The presence of other cults and sects in the background served to give the portrayal of religion even more depth and to further ingrain it in the world. I did struggle with the use of magic in this book however. Magic, especially druids, play a major role in this story however the fact that all of this 'magic' is so obviously a sham made it's frequent, and supposedly threatening, use seem ridiculous. The behaviour of druids and other 'mage' types throughout the plot bordered on comical and the characters' naiveté to these obvious hoaxes was frustrating.

Overall this story was a great example of historical fiction and a unique and powerful retelling of the Legend of Arthur. I'm definitely going to continue on with this series.
Profile Image for Phee.
584 reviews58 followers
August 30, 2017
Firstly I'd like to thank Craig for an awesome first buddy read and for putting up with me in general. I look forward to reading with you again, if you'll have me.

The Winter King is a tremendously well written book. Cornwell is an amazing author and I can't wait to give some of his other books a go. Looking at you Last Kingdom!

This one gets a 3 star rating from me. I think 3 stars adequately represents my overall enjoyment of the book. I liked the story, loved the writing. But found it hard to stay motivated and difficult to read at times.

I found it hard to grasp who was who and the names of places and characters were difficult for me. I am not familiar with any Arthurian tales or retellings so this was all new territory for me.
Also, I do suffer with dyslexia and whilst for the most part I don't normally have too many issues, the spelling and letters did make this a challenging read for me. This I know is a personal gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.

The writing was truly enjoyable and so many of the characters were multi layered and unique. I loved Arthur. There were also many different themes present in this book. Mainly themes of Love and honour often a combination of the two, and some of the speeches were very impressive.

Overall I think part of my lack of interest came from the book hangover that Assassins Fate by Robin Hobb has left me in. But I also have a feeling that this wasn't quite my cup of tea. I can see why so many people think this is a 5 star read.
At this point I'm not going to continue with the trilogy as I feel I will probably have to force myself to do so. Reading should be a hobby, not a chore. So I'll try another Cornwell book instead.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,138 reviews151 followers
October 17, 2011
TWK The Winter King (The Arthur Books, #1) by Bernard Cornwell is easy 5 stars for bringing this oft-told tale to us in a completely new (and I do mean new) way. WARNING! Do Not read this book if you like your Arthur legend gauzy, frilly, magicky and cheesy. All previous Arthurian tales pale in comparison to Mr. Cornwell’s version. All of the usual suspects are present here but you will not see many of them portrayed in the standard ways. You will also meet a host of new companions and enemies. It is safe to say that you will never look at Lancelot, Guinevere and Morgan in the same light. Arthur is completely believable as a real person. While he is noble and also fallible, this Arthur is an implacable and ruthless warrior when needed. You will care for the new characters in Arthur’s service and despise his fiendish enemies. Merlin is a real treat, never easily categorized. Mordred is despicable in a way that makes sense.

This first book in the trilogy introduces Arthur as he tries to stop the Britons fighting each other and unite them to oppose the invading Saxons. Some of the venues are familiar and some are not. You will meet and follow Derfel, who tells the tale long after it occurred, and he is a central and appealing character.

What sets this story apart is Cornwell’s attempt to show a realistic portrayal of what a Welsh Arthur would have been like. He also tries to show what life was like at the time. (If you need vowels to pronounce names and words, you will be struggling. His characters often have names like the trolls in Tolkien’s tales and the place names look like sites in Mordor.) While Cornwell states up front this is not his attempt to write a true history, it becomes so realistic you will think it must have been so.

The Winter King is set in a cold, dreary time when the Britons are fighting each other while the Saxons slowly invade the eastern part of the island. There is a recognition that the glories of Roman civilization, learning and progress are fading and that the Britons cannot build on that legacy. A long dark period is looming. Adding to this mix is a war between Christianity and paganism. It isn’t pretty but Cornwell’s story is so rich and pungent, I found myself caring for these characters like few others I have ever read. You will too.
Profile Image for Andy.
428 reviews66 followers
September 4, 2018
Not oft, actually hardly ever, do I read a second series by an author set in a diffo historical period for fear of more of the same but jus a diffo setting (its happened with others) but here I am giving Bernard Cornwell a go with his Arthurian saga – Its only a short series & having heard many good things, I’m intending to bang the lot of in one go (3 books) to complete my Summer read.

It’s also one of my favourite legends so I hope he does it justice!

The story begins with a scribe (Derfel) at a desk who is writing the story of Arthur, the Warlord who should have been King so it goes........... The story proper starts conventionally with Uther Pendragon & the birth of a son called.......? Derfel himself, Morgan, Mordred & Merlin’s court (minus Merlin) at Glastonbury soon follow all being familiar names in the lore of Arthur. The lay of the land is set, illustrated by a map of the time C 480 AD in the land of the Britons. The story flows into birthrights, succession and politics across the kingdom & the ensuing war with the interloping Saxons from the East. Real place names of the time are used which are on the map & its authenticity is great to follow, making you feel part of the setting as you soon get used to them. It helps no doubt if you live in the region in question so it’s familiarity is already imbedded.

I’m hooked from the start, enjoying the tale, the characters & the period, which is portrayed in a feasible way (so much is still really unknown about post-Romano Britain). The characterisations of the players of Arthurian lore are spot-on for me & make for an excellent read. The politics are involved with petty rivalries, jostling for power & certain kings trying to be top dog of all the kingdoms of the Britons as all the while the Saxon threat becomes more prevalent as they encroach from the East. There is also a tie in with Brittany which is still part of the British sphere of influence. The battle scenes are expertly told & easy to visualise, epic in their content.

Will the Britons unite? Will the Saxons prevail? That is the crux of the story. Enjoy.

A clear 5 stars for me as I can’t fault it...... plus Ive hardly given any 5’s this year!
Profile Image for Tosh.
163 reviews39 followers
January 26, 2016
These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and…the best man I ever knew.

What I loved about reading this tale for the first time is that I had no expectations. Of course, I did have a little knowledge of Arthur, but nothing that would give me an impression of who he should be. I knew he was a king and possibly a Christian (not in this version). And I had also heard of Galahad, Lancelot, Merlin and Camelot, but basically, this was all new to me.

Derfel writes from a monastery at the request of Queen Ingrain who is infatuated with the exploits of Arthur, famed warrior and protector of Dumnonia. Derfel, once a sworn warrior and friend to Arthur, now remembers the days when Arthur sought peace and justice, but writes not only of his heroism, but of his most vulnerable moments. The tale begins with the birth of a new heir, a leaderless land, and desperate need for someone who can bring peace and safety until he is of age. Arthur will not be the first choice.

Our task is to give Mordred a rich, peaceful kingdom, and to do that we have to make it a good and just kingdom.

Arthur, Arthur, Arthur... A man of honesty, kindness, passion, ambition, and such high expectations for himself. In his attempt to seek peace, he also made quite a few enemies. My gosh! I loved him and wanted to throttle him at the same time. Love does strange things to people, but he risked everything for Guinevere, and I can’t help but think what a shallow and conceited woman she is. Their union started out on the wrong foot, and I have my suspicions that things will not go well in the future. She’s a sly one. As for Arthur, he’s blinded by his love and his need to be loved, but not just by Guinevere. As much as he wants peace and justice, he stumbles over his own ambitions, maybe because he refuses to see the falsity in others. The mercy he extends, and the trust he gives may come back to bite him later. I foresee tragedy in his future.

Lancelot is a turd! (’turd’ being from the Cornwell dictionary) I’m not sure what his place is in the original legends but he is, after Sansum, my least favorite character in this book. He’s a lying, sniveling momma’s boy, and I hope he’s exposed for the worthless prince he is.

Sansum. I already reserved turd for Lancelot, but he’s lower than low. No surprise to find a phony priest hording gold, being a cruel, bitter man and taking advantage of his novices. I wish he weren’t in the story, because he disgusts me. As a Christian, these characters give me the most frustration because I know there are, have been and will always be people like him.

Galahad on the other hand, was such a loyal warrior and friend. We don’t get to see a whole lot of his character, but I’m hoping he will have a more central place in the series eventually.

Merlin! I love Merlin. He doesn’t show up for a long while. I was beginning to wonder if he ever would. If he weren’t such a mean old man, he reminded me a little of Gandalf, always away on some journey searching for more information, returning when you least expect, only to leave just as abruptly. I love his little gibes, his indifference to the events outside his own ambition, but that he meddles anyway. The fact that most of his power, and that of the other Druids, is all based on superstition and fear, and not actually magic is a nice change of pace. He walks about as confidently as if he could actually cast an enchantment or perform a miracle. It’s funny to think he holds no actual power and yet can move kings and armies at his word.

I’ve missed out on a wonder legend for far too long, but if it had to be any book to introduce me then I’m happy it was this one, because I just love Bernard Cornwell’s writing: his gritty details, his ability to make you feel what his characters feel and see what they see, and the fact that no matter how much I want to turn away, I can’t. Even when the characters are rotten or the details too much there’s nothing like a well-written story that makes you feel the anguish, the cruelty, the depravity, the love, the loyalty, and the ambition of those characters.
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