Son of a 5th-century Breton king ousted by a rival, eight-year-old Lancelot is an orphaned fugitive taken under the wing of the Lady Nimue on St Michael’s Mount, where he meets the young Guinevere. Her Christian-convert father has sent her there, embarrassed by her pagan gifts. Lancelot eventually falls in love with her, but his destiny lies at Tintagel, where the dying Uther Pendragon is about to name his successor, who turns out to be his own son, Arthur. Not everyone is pleased, least of all Arthur’s cousin, Constantine, and Morgana, mother of Arthur’s bastard son, Mordred. Lancelot, captivated by the charismatic Arthur, joins his army to fight Constantine, then the encroaching Saxon hordes and finally Mordred, that great hater.
Arthur doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel, but it’s worth persevering with Lancelot’s own rather overlong story before getting to the meat of the tale, as all comes full circle in the end. The battle scenes are vivid yet restrained; the tragic, doomed love-triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is beautifully handled, a proper grown-up love story. There’s depth in the characters, and the writing overall is both muscular and lyrical, culminating in a poignant ending that echoes in the mind after the last page has been turned.