Lancelot by Giles Kristian (Book Review)
It’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts about Lancelot – I’d been immersed in its world for so long that it no longer feels like a book I read but rather an experience I lived. Let’s try and garner some structure to this, shall we?
Firstly, Lancelot is the story of, well, Lancelot. We all know who Lancelot is, right? Knight of King Arthur’s round table, chivalry and questing, wizards and maidens, watery tarts, and maybe a boar? Going into this book, I thought I knew what to expect. A retelling of an Arthurian legend, focused, presumably, upon the character Lancelot; “legend” being the key word in my expectation. Mythology. Fantasy. A setting that is clearly British but intangible, impossible to pin to any specific time or exact place.
This was my first surprise. I was blind-sided by how close it felt to historical fiction; we’re thrust into post-Roman Britain and (what will eventually become) northern France, and Kristian’s attention to detail—his portrayal of customs, traditions and beliefs—brought this time period to life. I particularly appreciated the care he took over these details, the use of ancient place names (Roman or Welsh); which would be expected in a typical historical fiction and came as a pleasant surprise here. Kristian blends these fantasy characters into this historical setting so perfectly that I’ve come away questioning my assumptions of these “legends” and whether there might have actually been such historical figures [Google, was King Arthur a real person?]. The story felt gritty and real, whilst still encapsulating the sense of magic and loyalty that these chronicles usually entail.
True to the eponymous title, this story focuses on the spread of Lancelot’s life – not just on his time with Arthur, as in many other retellings. Kristian establishes Lancelot as his own man before he is pushed and pulled into place by those certain others. I’m loath to fall back on clichés, but it is very much like a tapestry; rich in detail, each thread lovingly and expertly woven into a story which is beautiful to behold. It’s an in-depth character portrayal as we grow up with Lancelot; from the cataclysmic event in his childhood which sets the course of his changing fortunes, through his trials, highs and lows, to an emotionally charged climax. It’s very much a character driven story, and as such I didn’t find it fast-paced. This isn’t the negative point it may sound like; rather, it’s the kind of book you need to take your time with and savour. These are characters we’ve all heard of, that we all think we know, but Kristian breathes life and meaning into them – they are multi-faceted and nuanced, believable and so very easy to fall in love with.
This is a story that is packed full of imagery and meaning. Kristian’s prose is unique – stunningly beautiful without ever feeling overdone. Simple ways of phrasing an action which suddenly lend it a new depth:
Pelleas considered this for a long moment, drinking deeply to water his thoughts.
Other times achingly poetic:
And she still owns such beauty that the air of the day is at once drawn into three hundred chests, like smoke and sparks sucked up the forge hood.
Wrapped up in these perfectly-constructed trappings are the themes you would normally expect to find in this kind of story – brotherhood, loyalty. Those hidden inner strengths that shine through at the darkest times. Betrayal. The notion of free will and how much or how little we’re actually guided through our actions.
There was so much to take away from this story, so much that I am still considering. I found myself strongly emotionally tied to these characters, there were so many poignant moments throughout that left me weeping. Particularly by the end of the book, I was a blubbering mess; but if I’m completely honest (and this may be a little spoilery), the open/ambiguous nature of the ending left me feeling like I’m lacking closure. Despite this, I’m still giving Lancelot five stars – ultimately it’s a wonderfully textured story from a perspective I had never encountered before. Truly masterful storytelling.