The Kingmaking

Written by Helen Hollick
Review by Ilysa Magnus

This first installment in the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy is a pure delight in every way. Claiming to be “a novel of the way Arthur really was,” Hollick takes us on a bold, vivid, and entirely engaging romp through Britain and Wales in the mid-5th century.

A very young Arthur enters into the life of a very young Gwenhwyfar when his leader and protector, Uther (who we later learn was his father) visits Cunedda, Gwen’s father, in Wales. Uther and Cunedda plot together to destroy Vortigern, the last ruler planted in Britain by the crumbling Roman Empire. Uther dies in the effort, and the new Pendragon is crowned—Arthur.

It is not Arthur’s kingship but his kingmaking that is the focus of Hollick’s tale: how he grows to be a brilliant warrior, to train his men, and to create a devoted following. He is a fully rounded person and in Hollick’s talented hands a flawed and often inexplicably selfish one. But it is in Arthur’s relationship with Gwen that we see who Arthur really is, what he is capable of, and what he is willing to do to ensure his legacy.

Although we know how this tale will end, the joy is in the process of getting there. The characters are lovingly drawn, and the plot moves in and out of Arthur’s and Gwen’s lives only to join them together. Though Hollick admits in her author’s note that much of this work is pure fiction—little is really known about these people, or even whether they existed—her perspective humanizes Arthur while giving us a world teeming with barbarians, tribal prejudices, and political marriages. Life in the so-called Dark Ages may be difficult, but it is one where love and devotion are sometimes rewarded. Highly recommended.