Monday, February 23, 2009

Review + Interview: The KingMaking by Helen Hollick

A novel of Arthur as he really was.
In the first book of this exciting trilogy, author Helen Hollick brings to life Arthur Pendragon as he really might have been. Leaving behind the fairy-tale element of Merlin's magic and the improbable existence of Lancelot, Hollick instead transports the reader to the early years of Britain circa 455 AD and tells the
Arthurian legend in a solid and believable way.

For one, Arthur does not pull a sword from a stone using superhuman strength; rather, he is named heir to Britain (if he can win it from the tyrant Vortigern) while standing near a "hallowed stone, the symbol of a warrior's strength and the chieftain's right of leadership." Later, a sword won in battle signals his place as Britain's King.

This is a story of harsh battles, secret treasonous plots, and the life-threatening politics of the dark ages of early Britain. Intertwined through it all is the often-tested love of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere in Welsh - her name as it really would have been) as they struggle to survive and conquer to see Pendragon become King.

The summary doesn't even tip the iceberg of the story. The KingMaking covers seven years in which a lot happens to both Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. They are separated, plotted against, hurt, endure hardships and heartbreak. Arthur, under the weight of heavy expectation, is in a constant battle for the throne. Gwenhwyfar is faced with many atrocities, some that would bring a lesser person to their knees. One thing that is overarching is Arthur and Gwenhwfar's love for each other. It is a continual thread and is very much the heart of the story.

In The KingMaking, the legend of Arthur is brought to life in a way that made him more real than I ever felt he was. There is no sword in the stone, or magic. No Merlin, no Knights of the Round Table, not even a Lancelot. Since little is known of Arthur's history or even if he actually existed, taking liberties with his character has been done through time. In this book, however, Arthur is portrayed like I've never read him before. He is described by his first wife's father as a "Drunken whore-user" which he is. He likes his wine, his women, and battle, not necessarily in that order. He is harsh, ruthless and unrelenting. He does not always make the right decisions, most times making the wrong ones for what he sees as the right reasons. Arthur is not what we today would consider chivalric, but he is a man of his time.

It takes skill to make an anti-heroic character likeable. Often times author's excuse a character's behavior by making other character's so horrible that the reader ignores the protagonist's despicable acts. I've seen it attempted and failed before, but not here. Arthur is little better than the people who plot against him, as he is plotting against them as well - all for the same end. His actions are not sugar coated or excused away. It simply is what it is. It does help that that Arthur is given a charisma that translates well and makes him character the reader can root for even when his actions are not always easy to swallow.

Besides Arthur and Gwenwhyfar, there are many other characters in The KingMaking, most getting a point of view, which helps understand motivations better than a limited point of view would allow. One of the most stand out aspects of this story is Arthur's relationship with the women in his life - his mother, his father's mistress, Gwenwhyfar, and Winifred- his first wife. These relationships vary from tender to absent to outright dysfunctional. The war scenes were bloody, but that is to be expected. The political intrigue was well done, and the relationships between all of the characters is something to marvel at.

For those who like historical fiction, who are interested in a different, straight forward, no holds barred take on the life and times of King Arthur then this is the book for you. If you prefer the more romanticised versions of Arthur, are squeamish of war scenes, and like your characters wholly noble, then this story may not work for you. I happened to really enjoy The KingMaking and look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. Grade A+.

Q&A with The Kingmaking author, Helen Hollick:

B: The legend of King Arthur has many different versions. In The Kingmaking we meet Arthur as a fifteen year old boy about to enter into a manhood that he never expected. What was it about the legend of King Arthur that made you want to add your own take to his shadowy legend?

HH: The usual Arthurian stories have never interested me. I could not believe in round tables, Holy Grails, and all those knights clonking around in armour. To my mind they were so “good” they were boring! Give me a loveable rogue any day! The King Arthur of the medieval tales was such a useless King; once he became King - after fighting hard for the title – he promptly disappears in search of the Holy Grail abandoning his Kingdom and his lovely wife. Why did he not foresee that Lancelot and Guinevere would have an affair? For fans of these tales, I’m sorry but I also detested Lancelot. The stories were so false, so unreal.

I had “discovered” the “real” Arthur (assuming he was real – he may well not have been) in an author’s note in Mary Stewart’s novels – The Crystal Cave and the Hollow Hills. She stated that if Arthur had existed he would have been a post-Roman war lord not a medieval knight. I preferred that idea and set about researching this more interesting version of Arthur. The problem with research is that you form your own opinions and I became so frustrated with other views. I was so annoyed with one author’s portrayal of Gwenhwyfar that I threw the book across the room—so annoyed that I decided to write my own version.

B: Though the story of King Arthur has been told many ways, one thing that has always prevailed in his character and that was that he was an honorable man. The Arthur in The Kingmaking is a bit less honorable in a few ways. I liked that in this story Arthur is portrayed as walking a thin line between heroic and anti heroic. What made you want to write him with shades of gray as opposed to the way that he has often been depicted through time?

HH: I had decided that there were to be no knights, turreted castles or Holy Grails in my story. No supernatural elements, no magic. No Lancelot, no Merlin. Instead, I researched the early Welsh legends of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh spelling of Guinevere). These legends were far more exciting than the Medieval stories. This Arthur was more plausible. This Arthur was real. If Arthur had existed he would have lived circa 450 -550 A.D., between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo Saxon invaders, when government and supreme control was in chaos.

I wrote my trilogy based on those Welsh legends because they were contemporary with the period when Arthur was probably alive. He was a War Lord, the son of a Romano British nobleman – and he lived and fought for what he considered his by right. These contemporary records do not portray him as a chivalric king and not even a Christian. The Church was still young in the Dark Ages, was still developing – and many people remained Pagan.

In these early stories we hear of Arthur stealing cattle from a monastery, of kicking a woman, and being condemned as a non-Christian. He had three sons, a wife – Gwenhwyfar, and close companions - Bedwyr (Bedevere) and Cei (Kay) There are twelve battles mentioned and “Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell.” No mention of Mordred being his sister’s son, or that this was civil war. The two could as easily been fighting on the same side.

I wanted to make my Arthur an earthy, capable – and realistic King. (Although in fact he would have been Dux Bellorum, or a similar Roman title, not “King” which is a Saxon term – I decided to keep to a modern familiar title, though.) To be a successful war lord – a leader who could inspire men, who could fight hard to gain a kingdom – and as hard to keep it – Arthur would have been a rough, tough man. He was honourable – but his honour and loyalty did not belong to the Christian God of the later tales, his honour and loyalty was to the men who served him with equal loyalty. His honour was to his kingdom. He was also, in his way, loyal to the woman he loved, Gwenhwyfar. Although he did stray sometimes and their love had some enormous ups and downs!

B: There are a lot of characters in this story. Some of the players I grew to really like and some I never cared for. It often was that the characters I liked met their ends early and the ones that I disliked kept on living. How did you decide which characters would live and which ones would die, and how they would meet their end?

HH: Some of the time I did not decide, the early legends dictated it. (and a warning here – you will need a box of tissues beside you for book two, Pendragon’s Banner!) Some of the decisions to kill off the characters were dramatic necessity – others, because the characters did not seem to continue into Arthur’s adult life. I won’t say any names here as it will spoil the story – but the brother of Gwenhwyfar who is murdered must have died at a young age because all of his brothers’ names are remembered in place names or recorded as leaders/fighters; i.e Ceredig founded Ceredigion in Wales. But there is no mention of this particular brother, logically then, he did not survive into adulthood.

B: On that same note, most of the deaths that came about seemed to act as a catalyst to move the story forward. Were the deaths then purposeful to reach a certain end or did the story just form itself that way?

HH: Some of the deaths, yes, were dramatic license. But much of the story wrote itself, in the sense that what happened seemed logical.

B: One of my favorite characters in The Kingmaking is Gwenhwyfar. Her character has often been portrayed in many different and conflicting lights. From unfaithful, mean spirited and disliked to intelligent and loved. Of all of the depictions that I've come across, I have enjoyed the one in The Kingmaking best. In this story Gwenhwyfar is a self assured young woman with an inner strength and beauty that shines through. It seems that you have taken bits from each portrayal and shaped them until they made a full formed character. Did you use much research to bring your version of Gwenhwyfar to life or was she more of your own creation?

HH: She is entirely my own creation – apart from the fact that Celtic women were equal to the men folk. It was the women who taught the boys to fight, for instance – and look at Boudica! (Boadicea) The Gwenhwyfar of those early Welsh legends was not an adulteress, but she was loyal and a respected “Queen” – and I also felt that she and Arthur were very much in love.

I wanted her to be a heroine. Thank you for your kind words about her – I hope you will grow to like her even more throughout the next two books.

B: Not much has been gleaned about Gwenhwyfar's past in the legends, but you have given her a history and a deep rooted family. Both helped to make her character more three dimensional than I've ever felt she was. What made you decide on the past you gave her?

HH: Cunedda, Lion Lord of Gwynedd existed, as did his brood of sons. At some time in the mid fifth century he moved from what is now Scotland to North Wales – he founded Gwynedd and is the ancestor of Llewellyn Fawr – Llewellyn the Great (who is my favourite character of all from Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful novels.) I wanted to use Cunedda as he was a factual figure. Then while looking through some genealogies (admittedly not very reliable ones) I found that he may have had a daughter – Gwen. Well that was it! Matter decided!

B: On the opposite spectrum of Gwenhwyfar is Winifred. I did find it kismet that Arthur ended up bound to a woman who was so much like Morgause, who he hated. Winifred, if I'm not mistaken, was never mentioned in any of the legends of King Arthur. With so many other problems that could have stood in Arthur and Gwenhwyfar's way, why this character?

HH: I wanted an opposite for Gwenhwyfar – but Winifred, as a character, was not my invention, although I made her name. The Arthurian Historian Geoffrey Ashe suggested that it was possible Arthur had been married to a daughter of Vortigern and his Saxon wife Rowena – I loved the idea as it opened up such a wonderful can of worms! It was great fun making her such a bitch!

B: Of course there could be no kingmaking without the battles. Some of the descriptions of battle were a little hard to read about, but understandably needed in order to show the real grit of war and the times. On the other hand, there were times of beauty and calm. Which of the two very different sides did you have an easier time writing?

HH: It depended on what mood I was in. If ever you have any angst to get rid of – write a battle scene! :-) Yes, some of the battles are a bit grizzly – but what is the point of writing a historical novel and putting in as much effort as possible to bring it alive, to make it real, and then create the battles as nothing more than an afternoon picnic or a staid bit of a punch-up? Battle was battle – men and horses were wounded and died – horribly. Fact.

I deliberately tried to balance these scenes by peace and calm – and romance - though, as happens in real life.

B: Ms. Hollick, I enjoyed The Kingmaking immensely and look forward to reading the final two books in the trilogy. Thank you for your time.

HH: My great pleasure, thank you for inviting me onto your blog!


Review based on advance copy from Sourcebooks. Visit Helen Hollick's site here. Read an excerpt here.


  1. Ooh, a new Arthurian trilogy! Thank you so much for the heads up, Brie. It sounds like one I definitely need to pick up. And what a lovely interview. I am a huge fan of Stewart's Arthur books and this series sounds like it follows a similar more realistic vein.

  2. Quick question, is this supposed to be a YA book?

    I'm not a fan of Arthur... but if I might give it a try if it's epic :)

  3. Great review and interview, Brie. :) You've piqued my interest in this book, and I've always loved medieval tales too. :)

  4. Fantastic review and author interview, Brie! I love the idea of a non-magical Arthurian tale, mostly because I can imagine a much more realistically brutal world at that time. Very interesting.

  5. Angie, if you are in to Arthurian work, then this is a definite must have for you. The story was excellent and very realistic.

    Nath, The Kingmaking is not young adult AT ALL. The story is epic, though, so you might enjoy it.

    Jace, I'm glad I got you interested. :) I don't think you will be disappointed in the story if you give it a chance.

    Christine, exactly. I like the fantasy Arthur tales, but I loved this more realistic version of him.

  6. Oh, okay (oups LOL). I think I will give this one a try :) I'm not big Arthurian books, but one with no magic and Lancelot?... I'm in :)

  7. I read and loved this one as well. I'm really looking forward to reading the next book and I hope that it as good as the 1st.

  8. Hello everyone - thank you for inviting me aboard your book blog and thank you so much for the wonderful review. I'm flattered!

    I hope to meet up with you again soon but please feel free to visit me on my website


  9. Nath, let me know if you read this one.

    Samantha, I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed the book, too. I can't wait to read your thoughts on it.

    Hi Ms. Hollick, you're welcome! I loved the book and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

  10. I liked Hollick's depiction of Arthur: much more real-to-life than the traditional legend. I felt the author did a good job of blending history with myth, and creating an accurate picture of post-Roman Britain.

    Arthur definitely had moments where you disliked him, among his other good qualities. Gwenhwyfar was the same way. There were times where I questioned her, but overall, she was more like-able than Arthur.

    What did you think of the antagonist characters? Did you think they were well-rounded and complex? What did you think of Winifred? Did she have any redeeming qualities in your mind?