LANCELOT by Giles Kristian (Book Review)
‘I feel like a ghost myself. A soul lingering long after the body has been given to the flame or earth. Seeking all that it has lost. A spirit full of envy for things that never were but which might have been.’
I haven’t read many books based on Arthurian legends. I know of the popular ones such as Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles and The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but as yet it is still on my mountain of to-be-read books. So although I’ve watched many on-screen adaptations of Arthurian tales, Lancelot by Giles Kristian is my first delve into a literary retelling, and it is one that is filled with such beauty, that I’m so pleased I picked it up. What sets this novel apart from other retellings is the depiction of Lancelot, rather than the more well-known characters such as Arthur or Merlin.
To make this book particularly refreshing, Kristian reflects the notion of Lancelot not being a solely villainous character who merely betrays his best friend, Arthur. You see, what if in fact Lancelot and Guinevere have a history? What if Lancelot is just a man who faces a difficult choice? A man who tries his best not to betray a brotherly friendship, but ultimately has to follow his heart beyond all reason? In this achingly tragic tale, I guarantee your heart will break for Lancelot and Guinevere.
Lancelot has a truly beautiful blend of historical fiction and fantasy, but with a sense of realism running throughout the whole story. This is not just another precise retelling – there are deviations from the Arthurian legends that I grew up knowing – but for the most part I felt these changes added so much more depth and plausibility to the characters and narrative. You see, Kristian delivers a fresh perspective and much-needed backstory to well-known characters such our main protagonist Lancelot, and also to Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, and Modred. He then skilfully weaves them into a bold and atmospheric tale of love, loss and heroism.
This is not a fast-paced story; it is more in the nature of a character study, and Lancelot is certainly a fascinating character to be inside the mind of. In the first half of the book we are presented with a coming of age tale, as we see young Lancelot during his early years training to be a warrior, his meeting with Guinevere and eventual separation. Then the story moves on in time and chronicles the later years Lancelot spends as Arthur’s best knight and best friend. During a few chapters I did find the pacing lagged somewhat for my personal taste, but this was down to my eagerness to reach the battle scenes. Although I’d never read a book by Giles Kristian before, I’d previously been told that he executes extremely well-written battle scenes and so I was highly anticipating them. I was not disappointed either; once we reach the chapter, aptly titled, ‘A Storm of Blades’, the scenes of warfare were absolutely incredible!
‘My own senses seemed to sharpen like a blade kissed by the whetstone. My blood thrummed as if intoxicated. I absorbed it all. Men coughing around me. Smoke surging, thickening the air and stinging my eyes and reaching towards the enemy shieldwall like ghostly fingers. My heartbeat deep in my ears now and a trickle of sweat running down my back, and the muscles in my thighs fluttering.’
Now, allow me to gush a little before I wrap up this review, because there is something gush-worthy which I found from the very first page of this book. The first person narration was absolutely exquisite! The prose seeps from the page and wraps its enchantment around you. Lancelot’s inner monologue is lyrical, eloquent, and vividly juxtapositions with the brutal warrior we see and know him to be too. You feel every emotion Lancelot experiences: his joys, his melancholy, his hopes; you intimately know the weight of his decisions, whether you agree with them or not.
Within these pages you will find grief, love, friendship, warfare, and deceitfulness. You will discover all too well the toll it takes on a man like Lancelot, and deep in your bones you may even shed tears for and come to sympathise with one of Arthurian legend’s most infamous betrayers. I know I did.
‘She was the girl whom a sea god had wanted but could not have. Whom I had wanted, but could not have.’