Sometimes, you just pick up books on a whim, not expecting anything at all, but finding that you have a real gem in your hands. Lancelot by Giles Kristian is one such book. I had nothing to read so picked this out at random from Tesco’s book section. It ticked several boxes: it was cheap (only £4), it was something different from an author I am unfamiliar with and – most importantly – it was based on ancient Britain which meant knights, castles and a medieval setting.
More specifically, this is a re-imaging of the Arthurian legends. The likes of King Arthur himself, Guinevere, Merlin and – of course – Lancelot are all present in this book but rather than re-treading familiar ground, Giles Kristian puts his own spin on the story and in the process, gains some creative freedom. The same key events from the famous Arthurian legend transpire here but the way everything is woven together is all original as are the characters and their personalities. Kristian also manages to minimise the use of fantastical magic and sorcery in his book, grounding the tale in reality with supernatural elements playing a clear second fiddle to physical battle and the actions of men rather than directly controlling or influencing events. The Lady of the Lake for example is a real woman and while the book hints at her mystical abilities, she is still a human being who ages like anybody else and uses herbs and ointments to heal instead of magical powers.
The story is told in the first-person from Lancelot’s point-of-view, making the famous knight the protagonist and “hero” of the tale. The book begins with Lancelot as a young boy living in Gaul, the son of King Ban of Benoic. His father’s lands are overrun by King Claudas, forcing Lancelot’s family to flee. King Ban’s brother – Lancelot’s uncle – betrays the family but fortunately, Lancelot survives the resulting slaughter after being rescued by the mysterious Lady Nimue (the aforementioned reimagining of the Lady of the Lake) and her men, including the warrior, Pelleas who goes on to become a father figure of sorts to Lancelot.
I take a man’s head from his shoulders and turn just in time to see the big Saxon driving his spear into Tormaigh’s throat latch. The stallion screams and swings his head at the saxon, blood spraying from the wound, and he stumbles on, carrying me forward still, towards Arthur. He and Gawain loom above the swarming enemy, hacking and thrusting, unable to turn their mounts now for the press, the two of them shining above the sea of grey like a sunset on the edge of the western sea.
From there, the story follows Lancelot as he grows into a man on the island of Karrek Loos yn Koos just off the south-western coast of Britain. He learns to become a warrior and quickly establishes himself as the most gifted and able young swordsman of all the boys training to be ‘Guardians of the Mount’ on the island. It is on the island that he meets Guinevere for the first time (after rescuing her from a sinking ship) and falls madly in love only to have her snatched away by circumstances outside of his control. Life on the island of Karrek Loos is only the prologue of Lancelot’s life however. He goes on to meet Arthur and become his close friend and sworn sword as Arthur quests to become the rightful High King of Britain, a country he is determined to defend from a ceaseless onslaught of Saxon invaders.
The last medieval type of story I read was the fantasy-orientated Song of Ice and Fire books (a.k.a Game of Thrones) and like those books, there is a great deal of richly-described battle in Lancelot. I wouldn’t say that things are as gratuitously graphic and gory as in Martin’s epic saga but Kristian is pretty unrestrained so you get a fairly mature and realistic description of battles and butchery. There are also many plot twists, betrayals and deaths of main characters without warning and this kept me reading, unable to put the book down at times.
There is also the central tragedy of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love for each other, a love that is seemingly vetoed by the wheels of fate at every corner. Their story is a constant vein flowing through the years of Lancelot’s life. Every time it seems that there is a chance for the lovers to finally be as one, there are bigger events and other people who get in the way. Lancelot is a man utterly bewitched by Guinevere and he never ceases thinking about her, even in the years where they are apart. His passion for her incites tragedy down the line and overrides the grand plans of Merlin and The Lady, plans which seem otherwise pre-destined and immovable until one man’s love for a woman he cannot have proves to be the most powerful force of all.
In the years since I had last seen her, there had not been a day when I had not thought of Guinevere. Whether I wielded a sword and shield, learning the arts of war, or swam around the Mount. Whether I was picking mussels off the rocks at low tide, climbing down the ledges in search of gulls’ eggs, honing blades, polishing the men’s war gear or eating in the communal hut. There was a moment of every day, be it as fleeting as a sparrow darting into a lord’s hall then out of the smoke hole, that I thought of Guinevere.
At those most often unexpected times, when I was not on my guard against it, she came on me like a stab wound. A wound which, though hidden from sight, never scabbed over. And even when she did not come with sudden, sharp and unbidden anguish, she was always with me; a dull ache deep in my chest. An ever-present absence. Guinevere.
The most striking thing about Lancelot however is the author’s writing style. Kristian’s prose is poetic and lyrical with descriptions and detail often indulgent and romantic, overflowing with metaphors and similes. He paints extremely vivid pictures and I ended up growing attached to all of the characters, especially Lancelot who the reader goes on a journey with. Lancelot is technically the traitor and adulterer of the Arthurian legend and even with the knowledge of what is probably going to happen towards the end of the book, I still found myself rooting for him. Unfortunately, this is a brutal age of war for Britain and Kristian doesn’t betray that background in favour of fairytale endings or idealism.
Her hair, which had never used to stay where it was put, was now braided and coiled and set in place with silver pins. Her skin, which though ever pale had used to be flushed from wind and sun, was as white as marble. Her eyes were dark with kohl and green with malachite, and her lips were red. Her chest swelled beneath a dress of green silk and a silver wolf’s pelt, and that dress, hemmed with silver thread, reached almost to the ground, so that only a glimpse of her silver-studded tan leather shoes could be seen. At her neck she wore a fine torc of twisted silver and around her upper right arm coiled a silver serpent with a red garnet eye.
And I could not find my breath.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough to anybody who has an interest in the Arthurian legend or medieval fiction. You feel the story as much you read it and thanks to Giles Kristian’s writing style, Lancelot quickly becomes a real page-turner – an epic journey through the years of one man’s life. This book was a genuine surprise for me but I have to say that, on the strength of Lancelot alone, I shall certainly be looking into the rest of Kristian’s work.