29 September, 2010

King Arthur: The Bloody Cup, by MK Hume. Book review

Headline, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7553-4871-8. 526 pages. Review copy supplied by publisher.

Set in post-Roman Britain some time in the fifth or sixth century, King Arthur: The Bloody Cup is the third part of a trilogy retelling the Arthurian legend. Many of the main characters are familiar figures from the legends, including Artor (King Arthur), Wenhaver (Guinevere), Gawayne (Sir Gawain), Percivale (Sir Percival), Galahad, Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere), Nimue, Artor’s half-sisters Morgan and Morgause, and Morgause’s son Modred (Mordred). Other characters are fictional, such as Artor’s bodyguard Odin and spy chief Gruffydd, and the villains Pebr and Gronw.

Artor has ruled as High King of Britain from his citadel on Cadbury Tor for many years and is now growing old. He has no legitimate heir as his wife Wenhaver is barren, and his court has grown corrupt and decadent. Artor’s enemies sense that he is growing weak. Three mysterious figures hatch a plot to steal the sacred cup once owned by the saintly Bishop Lucius of Glastonbury, claim that it once belonged to the goddess Ceridwen and use it as a symbol to provoke a rebellion against Artor. The struggle for possession of the cup, and a mysterious spear, threatens Artor’s friends, his kingdom and his life.

I reviewed the previous book in the series, King Arthur: Warrior of the West, in January 2010, and concluded then that it wasn’t for me. The publishers sent me a copy of the third instalment without asking first, and I read it partly out of curiosity to see if the loose ends from Book Two were resolved and partly to see if I got on better with the style on further acquaintance. The answers are ‘sort of’ and ‘no’, respectively. This is still not a series for me.

On the plus side, it was quite fun to spot bits of the medieval legends – e.g. the Trystan-Isolde-King Mark love triangle makes a brief appearance, transplanted to north-east Wales instead of the traditional Cornwall – and the steady attrition of Artor’s friends and potential heirs has a certain poignancy. On the other hand, the corruption and decadence of Artor’s court is so strongly emphasised that it is not obvious why the reader is supposed to be worried when it is threatened. If Artor’s court is full of lies, vanity and backbiting courtiers trying to stab each other in the back while living in the lap of decadent luxury, it’s hard to suppress a niggling thought that a different set up might not be noticeably worse. The tragic grandeur of the Arthurian legend – a good king brought down by lesser men and by his own flaws – seemed to me to be missing from this retelling.

However, the main reason I did not get on with the novel was the same as last time; I found the writing style reminiscent of academic prose. Maybe the intention is to create an archaic flavour (although modern slang such as “gumption”, “sodding thing”, “shite” tends to work against this), but to me it seemed lifeless, especially the dialogue. People speak in grammatically correct complete sentences even when being tortured or when mortally wounded, and everyone sounds much the same.

Place names are a mix of Roman names, e.g. Ratae (modern Leicester), Verterae (modern Brough, Cumbria), and modern names with Old English elements, e.g. Glastonbury, Cadbury. If there is a pattern to the mix it wasn’t clear to me. Similarly, although the ‘Saxons’ are treated throughout as an utterly alien enemy to Artor’s realm (they don’t make an on-stage appearance), some of the characters in Artor’s kingdom have Old English names, such as the saintly Bishop Aethelthred* the Pure of Glastonbury. This struck me as potentially intriguing; does the presence of Old English names indicate that some ‘Saxons’ were acceptable in Artor’s realm, implying a degree of co-operation or integration, and if so, how is this reconciled with the fact that everyone at Artor’s court apparently regards the ‘Saxons’ as the enemy? Was Bishop Aethelthred a ‘Saxon’ immigrant, and if so how did he come to be the revered head of the greatest Christian monastery in Artor’s realm? As far as I could see this was never touched on, unless I missed it somehow, and it contributed to a general impression of unreality about the setting. This perhaps doesn’t matter, since the medieval Arthurian legends are set in a ‘once-upon-a-time’ setting, and this novel is perhaps best read in the same light.

A partial character list at the front of the book helps with keeping some of the large cast straight, and is especially useful for characters who played a role in the earlier books but who are now dead. However, not everyone is listed (e.g. Taliesin and Modred are missing, as are the villains Gronw and Pebr), so I still had to jot down notes. A glossary of place names at the back of the book matches some of the place names in the novel with their modern equivalents, but it is incomplete – I got confused between Salinae and Salinae Minor and looked in the glossary for clarification, but only Salinae is listed. Readers who like to follow the characters’ journeys on a modern map may find they have to keep notes.

Final part of a trilogy retelling the Arthurian legends, but not a book for me.

*I’m not sure if this is a typo for Aethelred, as Aethelthred or Aethelthryth was a female name, or if I have missed something subtle.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Yeah, still not for me, either. ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

I have to agree with you and Gabriele and say this novel doesn't sound like my cup of tea, either! Funny about 'Aethelthred' - it makes me wonder if giving a bishop a female name was an error on the author's part or whether it's meant to be subtly suggestive, as you say, Carla.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Have you read the series? I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Kathryn - yes, the name puzzled me, too, like the choice of place names. Someone else might feel quite differently, though.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Haven't read it, Carla. You reviews make it sound like something I won't like, and the world's too full of good books .... :)

Carla said...

Just wondered if you were speaking from experience :-)

Rick said...

There's something extra jarring about using a formal, archaic-esque, and rather turgid style, and then throwing in modern slang. One more reason to give it a pass.

I'll guess that the author simply slipped up on the bishop's name, and perhaps was not even aware it was English, let alone that it implied a lesser scale Pope Joan.

Carla said...

I'd be surprised if the author was unaware that Aethel(th)red was an English name. There again, we did have Glamdring in the previous book, so perhaps names aren't all that important in the book's world.