Pendragon’s Banner, the second book in Helen Hollick’s take on the Arthurian legend, follows closely behind The Kingmaking. Arthur has won his kingdom, but finds he must constantly look over his shoulder at the legions ready for him to lose control of his lands. Peace also eludes Gwenhwyfar as she raises her three young sons, knowing Arthur’s first wife Winifred is looming with her own son as rival heir. Mix in Arthur’s aunt, Morgause, whose sole evil purpose seems to be to bring Arthur to ruin, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a royal disaster of epic proportions.
Pendragon’s Banner gives us a very different Arthur than the one made famous by so many others. He’s not Christian, or even particularly religious; while he loves Gwenhwyfar beyond reason, he’s not a faithful husband. This Arthur is not always a good person, but he is a brilliant military commander and a man whom others will follow even unto death. There is no magic to be found in Pendragon’s Banner, no Lancelot, no Merlin; instead we are given a fallible man striving to hold his kingdom together for the sake of his people and his sons. Likewise, Gwenhwyfar is no wallflower, waffling between two men. Indeed Gwenhwyfar steals the show late in the book when she takes matters into her own hands and decisively leads a charge in the face of incredible odds.
This novel is an ambitious twist on the well-worn tale of Arthur Pendragon, and it succeeds because Hollick has made Arthur human and accessible. Written as history rather than myth, the story at times moves a bit slowly but builds very nicely toward the climax. While purists may not like Hollick’s take, I found myself enjoying the idea of Arthur as a real king facing distrust and doubt, both from himself and his vassals. I will definitely be waiting anxiously for the third installment in this excellent trilogy.