What more can be said about Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and the rest? Plenty, it turns out. That hand breaking the surface of the water with Excalibur in its grasp? Forget the magic, for this is a world of spin, conspiracy, violence and presentation politics. This Arthur is a hard-riding, womanising, gold-hungry warlord without a political bone in his body. He leaves that stuff to Myrddin. No gilded towers of Camelot here; the attempt to house Arthur and his henchmen in a circular building collapses in the wind, rain and mud.
We see things from the bottom of the social heap; Gwynna, an orphan girl, taken up by Myrddin at first simply because she swims like a fish (so that’s whose arm it was!). Her adventures gather pace and danger, relationships grow deeper and sometimes darker. Arthur’s much-abused Queen Gwenhwyfar finds her own tragic end, her lover Bedwyr butchered by Arthur. Readers of Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ quartet know that he can temper action and tension with humour, and those qualities are powerfully present in this novel; and like the sequence, this is much more than a ripping yarn. Gwynna’s world (in which at first she has little power) is marked by brutish masculinity, passion and manipulation. Those romantic stories which are to become the Arthurian legends are all down to Myrddin. For he believes that if he tells the people the tales they’d like to hear, gives ‘em a hero, romance, (a glimpse of celebrity, you could say), then he’ll secure the support and funds to serve his ends – in this case, the creation of a leader in Arthur who will expel the Saxons. The cynical expediency at the core of that way of thinking brings its own disillusionment. Arthur couldn’t give a damn about the Saxons when there’s booty to be won; and Myrddin himself cannot suppress the fatherly love he discovers – but cannot express – for his protégé. Only Gwynna sees another way – we leave her and her quirky lover slipping out of the harbour at Tintagel, ‘outbound for somewhere better’.
An Arthur for our times.