Arthur Rex Brittonum (A Light in the Dark Ages)
In his Light in the Dark Ages series, Walker puts his own cast on the myths of 5th- and 6th-century Britain and its blend of Roman influence, lingering Celtic customs, and emerging Anglo-Saxons kingdoms. Book 5 covers the last two of Arthur’s legendary battles: his victory at Mount Badon in 515 and his final defeat at Camlann in 525.
The first half of the book, building to Badon, portrays Arthur as a rough-hewn warrior who relishes the battle to protect the land he’s been made king of, though his real enemies are not the invaders crossing the seas but his treacherous half-sister and her son Mordred, a rival claimant. The book then skips a decade to show a besotted and ineffectual ruler betrayed and brought down by his own weaknesses.
Walker’s attempt to synthesize the many strands of Arthurian myth leads to an occasionally confusing duplication of characters: there’s a Cadog and Caradog, a Peredur and a Percival, wives Gunamara and Guinevere, and sisters named Anne and Morgana. Though familiar characters like Bedwyr, Morgaise, Gareth, and Nimue are given a unique stamp, the large cast becomes unwieldy when filled out with invented characters like Arthur’s Jute bodyguard and Beowulf, borrowed from the Old English epic poem.
Scenes of war and strategy keep the plot lively, and Walker’s blend of myth and material culture is quite believable, but the essential lack of character development eventually makes it hard to care about the established outcome. Devoted fans of the Arthurian myths, like this reader, may notice the book skirts the thematic elements—heroism, tragedy, destiny, thwarted love—that make these stories so enduring. Still, for those for whom there can never be too many Arthur stories, Walker’s hero can hold his own in a crowded field.