Thursday, July 20, 2017

The power of a legend: James Wilde's Pendragon

The women laughed among themselves, a musical sound that seemed to tinkle on too long. ‘Words change the world,’ the mother said when they were done. ‘Tell a man he will be a king, and a king he may well be.’

James Wilde’s latest novel is billed on the cover as an “epic new historical adventure." Although it has the requisite elements of the genre (gritty action, intense physical danger, and an honorable hero you’ll be rooting for), it’s also a remarkably thoughtful example of its kind. Drawing on Roman, Celtic, Christian, and even older belief systems, Pendragon speaks to the ways religions supplant one another, and the motifs they all share. It explores how people create and communicate myths, and how these myths, in turn, can spur people into action.

Looking at the title, you’ll guess (rightly) that it’s has Arthurian themes, but you won’t see most of the usual suspects in these pages. There’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Uther, no Igraine. Arthur himself, the “bear king” who’ll supposedly unite Britain’s people at the time of greatest need, is the subject of a prophecy that may come to fruition, several generations down the road, but only if forces align to make it happen.

Pendragon takes place mostly in Britannia in the mid-4th century, an era that very few authors are writing about. At the far reaches of the empire, soldiers of the fort of Vercovicium along Hadrian’s Wall have gotten used to slow communication with Rome, whose leaders are preoccupied with attacks by Germanic tribes and political infighting. Lucanus, one of a group of five scouts patrolling the northern wilderness occupied by barbarians, comes across the bodies of some compatriots who died in a particularly savage manner. So he’s less than eager to return there, but after the eight-year-old son of the woman he loves disappears, and a witness says the boy was taken into barbarian territory, Lucanus has no choice but to search for him, even at terrible risk to himself.

Deadly culture clashes and earthy mysticism (complete with witchcraft and visions fueled by magic mushrooms) combine in this exciting saga about a dark time in European history. The plot doesn’t go where you’d expect, and there are more than a few fierce, stereotype-defying women characters.

However, it wasn’t a perfect read for me. One character makes a dumb decision purely to generate drama (or so it seems), and Wilde draws back from showing readers two key scenes. Also, a parallel storyline set in Gaul and Rome felt fragmented in comparison, although I did like the way the two threads were slowly brought together – their connection wasn’t obvious.

Overall, recommended for anyone interested in the Roman Empire or who’s entranced by the power the Arthurian legend exerts.

Pendragon was published by Bantam in the UK on July 13; thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.


  1. Any idea when this title will be available in the US? I loved Wilde's Hereward series.

    1. Unfortunately, I don't know, but you could check with the author. Pegasus is the publisher of the Hereward series in the US, but Pendragon isn't in their winter 2018 catalog... maybe it will be picked up later on, by them or another press. I hope so.

      Book Depository has a copy at a reasonable US price if you'd rather not wait!

    2. p.s. Like Hereward, this one will be a series also (Pendragon is book one of the Dark Age series).

  2. Sounds good. I'm an Arthurian fan, especially the Dark Ages Romano-British version. I haven't come across this one yet - where does Arthur come into it? You don't say.
    An Interview With Vikki Wakefield

    1. Actually I did! :) But maybe it wasn't clear? Arthur doesn't appear in person since this happens a century before his time. It's predicted that a king like him will come along, a few generations later, but that will only happen if the circumstances are right - so the people in the novel try to direct those circumstances.