Review: Pendragon – James Wilde

img_6645Series: Dark Age 1

My version: Hardback
Genre: Historical Fiction Romans, Britons, Celts, Britain
Bantam Press (Transworld, Penguin Random House)
First published: 2017
Bought, signed

From the cover:

Winter AD367, and in a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army have been brutally murdered.

Their mutilated bodies were discovered by an elite unit led by Lucanus. Also called the Wolf, he knows the far north to be a foreign land, a wild place ruled by barbarians, inhabited by daemons and witches – a place where the old gods live on. It is not somewhere he would willingly go and to him this ritual slaughter reeks of something altogether more dangerous.

But when the child of a friend is taken captive, Lucanus feels honour-bound to journey beyond the wall and bring the boy back home. He is not alone. For this is a quest that will span an empire – from the pagan monument of Stonehenge to the kingdoms of Gaul and the eternal city of Rome itself – a search that will embroil a soldier and a thief, a cut-throat and a courtesan, a druid and even the great Emperor Valentinian. And what is revealed will reverberate down the centuries…

I have put together a Speesh Reads Pinterest Board for Pendragon, with pictures and links galore

A grand disappointment I’m afraid. Not a patch on his previous Historical Fiction series – Hereward – and not a patch on Steven A. McKay’s The Druid, which covers similar ground in the post-Roman Britain, start of the Dark Ages, beginning of the Arthurian legend era.

The plot is simple, find out the kid is the one, lose him, find him, lose him, find him…repeat until fade, as all the best song lyrics have it.

It just reads like a Historical Fiction Cliché checklist – ‘scarlet spray’, ‘raised eyebrow(s),’ ‘pursed lips,’ there was more than likely a ‘barely discernible’ or two, but my mind wandered from time to time. The clichés extend to the make up of the motley band of warriors and misfits that are thrown together and then engaged on the quest for something or other. Ex-Roman soldier, who is actually British and seems to more often than not think he actually is a wolf, called ‘Lucanus.’ The Wolf’s Latin name is of course, Canis lupus. There’s a huge warrior, who uses his sword before he thinks, but has a heart of gold. There’s a thinner one who is good at something else, there’s a woman who is/was someone else’s wife, there’s the female brothel owner, who obviously has a heart of gold…you could have written this yourself, couldn’t you? And that’s not why I buy and read historical fiction, damnit!

The little group – of exquisitely crafted friends, each having a different and at various times much-needed in that particular instance, personalities, and abilities (imagine Marvel’s Fantastic Four) – seem to travel south from H. Wall, for…well, no particular reason as far as I could say. Maybe because the Wood Priest wanted them to, who knows? A big wrench for, especially, The Wolf, as he is born and bred (I think) up there by the wall, and doesn’t seem to think he needs to ‘return home’ to the south, as far as I could tell. To get away from the barbarians invading from the north? Maybe, but surely he would want to stand and defend his homeland? OK, maybe overwhelming odds, but still. The boy, as far as I could tell, isn’t captured (again), and taken south, forcing Wolfie to go south after him.

Pendragon signatureSo the Wood Priest, Merlin, sorry, Myrrdin, comes on to the scene. Now he is a cliche. Nothing is as it seems, child. Everything has two meanings, all will become clear, etc. There is what is, and there is the real meaning just under it, which if you will only open your eyes, you know it. No one says ‘ok, if what you say is or will come true – what are next week’s lottery numbers, eh?’ The name Myrrdin…apart from me groaning as yet another version of the name that would later become Merlin from legend, is introduced. That could be real I suppose, and you can see how that would over the years become Merlin. So you could say, in this story, this is being proposed as being a real figure. A druid, who names his son Myrrdin, who names his son Myrrdin, etc. Who will, at some later stage, associate himself with Arthur. Except, where does this son come from? As this Wood Priest – the word Druid, is suggested to be a form of ‘oak-knower’ – clearly, has precisely no interest in women. Or are we saying that he too will have a magic mushroom flying experience with a witch, who will bear the child? But he’s an old man here and there’s no indication of there being a Mrs Wood Priest back at home looking after Myrrdin Jr. Anyway, being a druid of sorts, Merlin knows secrets, but they mainly seem to consist of reciting legends and stories from the age before men were…so how does he know? Druids didn’t write things down and there was no one around to see the star come crashing down! Myrrdin is such a terrible, terrible cliché, that you really dread him appearing, are glad when he’s gone and we can get back to Lucanus’ oh dear, oh my, depressed Hyena act.

Stripped down, you have the end of Roman occupation in (at least) Northern Britain, and the overrunning of Hadrian’s Wall by ‘barbarian’ hoards, here, the various tribes who lived north of the wall. Elsewhere, as far as I could tell, there are waves of ‘barbarians’ coming in from the east. Presumably supposed to be Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who, seeing that the Romans had relinquished control over Britannia, were seizing their chance. Except that they most probably didn’t. I’ve read books which now say that there wasn’t a concerted, organised invasion at one time, or over a relatively short period, but that archaeology suggests more of a gradual, continuous wandering over from northern Germany, lower Scandinavia. And anyway, the barbarian invaders from the east, I couldn’t really get a hold of what he was exactly meaning with them, how they would impact the tale. Maybe that’s for the second (or third) book.

While the setting and the frame of the story is at east based on some sort of reality, all too much of the rest is pure author-invented fantasy. So much that I felt a few times, it should be properly filed under ‘Fantasy.’ There is way too much pure fantasy – flying with and impregnating Witches while flying on magic mushrooms – and fantasy which, as far as I can see, doesn’t, or can’t, have a basis in any actual legends or even suggestion of passed down through the generations but now lost legends. Some comments I’ve seen were trying to claim that it was about how this time was when such legends as the Arthurian one, were formed. That, I agree, is not in doubt, but this is the kind of imagining that you find in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood books (the ones that have most of the story inside the wood, that is). All too much is about the prophecy of ‘the king who will not die,’ the saviour coming/returning, to save the poor and whatever else. All too many scenes – with the witches, with the druid, with moistened bints lying around in lakes – is, can have, no basis in any kind of historical reality. All the talk from the wood priest for instance, that is pure invention. And so much of what happens, hinges on acceptance of this imagination as real, that I lost touch with it.

I did try to think once or twice “what if I’m wrong?” (it can happen). How could someone possibly think this minestrone is actually pottage? Well, let’s look at the trees. He likes his trees, all sorts of trees mentioned. Names, each and every one of them, in groups and singularly. Maybe it is, to emphasise the connection the people had with the country, the land, the nature. Despite the main ones being Roman auxiliaries. Maybe, it’s to emphasise the people, once Roman surety and security was gone, were in need of being in touch with the ground, like the Wolves and the other animal-named groups they seemed to have fought alongside as Roman auxiliaries? Is it suggesting this is something, an ability, a connection we’ve lost in the 1500 years since? Maybe. If it is, then it should have been developed more, instead of going off one one as the rest of it seems to be.

If you’re going to go the ‘before Arthur, before Camelot…’ route, you’ve got to go realistic with the rest. And this is a long way from that. Just changing the spelling of a few names we know, so we think ‘ah, so that must be where the name Merlin comes from…’ isn’t going to do it. Putting your own mythic ideas on top of other half-myths, isn’t really explaining, or hypothesising how these myths could have been created. It’s not legends forming from the mists, it’s losing the reader in them. I’ve ordered the second – because Hereward – but if I hadn’t, I can’t think of very much here that would have had me doing so otherwise.

You can buy Pendragon from The Book Depository

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