30 October, 2011

In Winter’s Shadow, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1981. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-4074-4. 410 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

In Winter’s Shadow completes Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, begun in Hawk of May (reviewed here earlier) and continued in Kingdom of Summer (reviewed here earlier). The central characters are Gwynhwyfar, her husband King Arthur, and Arthur’s chief commander Bedwyr. Other important characters are familiar from the legends, including Arthur’s illegitimate son Medraut and the warriors Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) and Cei. Fictional characters from the earlier books, including Gwalchmai’s servant Rhys and his wife Eivlin and Medraut’s companion Rhuawn, also reappear here.

After many years of struggle, Britain is approximately at peace. King Arthur and Queen Gwynhwyfar are beginning to restore some measure of prosperity and stability after the destructive upheavals of war. But although Arthur’s malevolent half-sister Morgawse is dead, the evil she set in train lives after her in the person of her son Medraut. Consumed by hatred, Medraut lives only to bring about the destruction of Arthur. Medraut’s first weapon is the shameful secret of his own birth. But it is the human frailties of Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr that give Medraut his second and most deadly weapon – one which may bring down not only Arthur but everything he has tried to achieve.

Although In Winter’s Shadow is billed as the third in a trilogy, it could be read as a stand-alone. Readers who have read the previous two will recognise events and people from them, and will pick up references to earlier incidents, but the main elements of the back story are filled in as necessary. Arthurian trilogies sometimes seem to fade by Book 3 or to sag under the accumulated weight of legend, but not in this case. I thought In Winter’s Shadow was the strongest of the three novels by quite a margin.

For me, the most compelling aspect of In Winter’s Shadow was the character of Gwynhwyfar, who narrates the novel in first person throughout. Gwynhwyfar as portrayed here is a fully three-dimensional character, with her share of human failings and her share of admirable qualities. She is intelligent and well educated, and sufficiently interested in the past to understand and share Arthur’s dream of recreating the best aspects of the lost Roman Empire, including impartial justice and respect for law. While Arthur is fighting battles, Gwynhwyfar is managing logistics and supply with a quiet fortitude that brings out the best in people and gets things done. Supply may be less than glamorous, but it is as essential as dashing tactics; as the old (apocryphal?) military saw has it, ‘Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics’. Arthur relies on her as much as on any of his warriors, and working together as partners in a shared task allows them to develop a deep and loving marriage. But the relentless immensity of the task inevitably puts a strain on their relationship, intensified by Medraut’s sly scheming.

The love triangle between Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr is completely convincing. No individual is entirely at fault, none is entirely blameless. They are three fundamentally good people who care deeply for one another, yet the conflicting demands of other loyalties, together with Medraut’s malice, conspire to twist their love into a destructive force. Gwynhwyfar is, naturally, at the heart of it, and her dilemmas, her choices, the consequences of those choices and the further dilemmas that follow from those consequences make for compelling reading.

The plot has few surprises for anyone familiar with the Arthurian legends. If anything, the well-worn tale makes the novel more poignant, as events rush to their inevitable conclusion and all the characters’ struggles to escape their fate merely serve to entangle them further. As well as the story of Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr, the tale of Gwalchmai and the boy Gwyn, begun in Kingdom of Summer, reaches its conclusion in In Winter’s Shadow. I noticed some deft references to other legends, for example the relatively minor character of Sandde Angel-face who appears in Culhwch and Olwen: “no-one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping”. No doubt there are lots of other subtle references like this that I missed.

A plus point for me was that fantasy and magic play almost no role in the plot, much less than in the previous two books (This might explain in part why I thought In Winter’s Shadow the strongest of the trilogy). Gwalchmai still has his Otherworld sword and horse, but if they have any magical powers they are scarcely mentioned. Medraut is said to serve the ‘Darkness’, as his evil sorceress mother Morgawse did before him, but for the most part this could be taken as a metaphor for ordinary human vices such as cruelty and greed.

A sketch map at the front of the book is useful for following the characters’ journeyings, for those not familiar with the geography of Britain and Brittany, although not all the places mentioned in the text are shown on the map. There’s no Author’s Note in the advance review copy; I don’t know if there will be one in the final version.

Moving retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of Gwynhwyfar, completing the story of Gwalchmai begun in Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer.


Nicola Griffith said...

I'm delighted you enjoyed this one. The trilogy is one of my favourites.

I can recommend Bradshaw's The Sand Reckoner as historical fiction (Archimedes) with zero fantasy content. I think it might be her best work.

Carla said...

I liked this third instalment best of the three, as you can probably tell from the review. Thanks for the recommendation of The Sand Reckoner - I haven't come across that one (yet!).

Rick said...

It's sort of interesting that the magic/supernatural element evaporates in the course of a trilogy (if a 'loosely bound' one).

I wonder if it has to do with the specifics of this book's plot, or if Bradshaw found as she went along that it was less necessary - on literary or commercial grounds, or both - than she had originally supposed.

Carla said...

No idea - that's a question that only the author could answer. It may reflect the legends. I'm not an expert, but my vague recollection is that the Guinevere-Arthur-Lancelot (Bedwyr in this case) love triangle doesn't have much in the way of magic in it. Tristan and Isolde are snared by a magic love potion, but if I remember rightly, Guinevere and her lover just fall in love. Caveat that there are umpteen retellings of the legends and the role of magic probably varies. Anyway, if my vague recollection is correct, then as Book 3 focuses on Gwynhwyfar (she is the narrator throughout), it would naturally tend to a low fantasy content.

For what it's worth, my feeling is that a love-triangle-loyalty-conflict story has more impact without fantasy, because it then becomes all about human emotion and human dilemmas and the players have responsbility for their own actions. If their actions are under the control of a spell or a love potion, some of that responsibility is taken away and (for me) that diminishes the story.

Rick said...

This sounds exactly right to me!