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Pendragon by James Wilde

Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…

It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.

But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world – a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde – in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.

A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon.

A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself – each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.

A new novel by James Wilde is always a cause for much excitement here at The Eloquent Page.  The Hereward novels were a fantastic series, and helped in no small way to re-ignite my interest in historical fiction. Wilde’s latest, Pendragon, heralds the beginning of an entirely new series called The Dark Ages.

Growing up in the United Kingdom, I’ve always felt that the Arthurian legends are stitched into the very fabric of British society. Everyone knows the names Arthur, Excalibur, Guinevere, Merlin and Camelot. These stories, names and places evoke ideals that everyone should aspire to. The narrative Wilde has created explores these same principles. Lucanus is driven by a sense of honour. He has vowed to ensure the people he cares for remain safe, and it becomes evident as the story progresses that he will do anything to achieve this aim. Like the Knights of Camelot, he feels it is his responsibility to defend the weak and powerless. His resolve is steadfast and contagious. The rest of the Arcani would happily walk into Hell for him and so they are happy to assist in any way they can. This group of scouts are more than just part of the same unit, they are a brotherhood.

Hands down my favourite character is Myrrdin, the enigmatic ‘wood priest’. He appears, some would say as if by magic, and guides Lucanus on his journey. Myrrdin is secretive, prone to mysterious pronouncements and more than likely knows far more than he is letting on. Initially, Lucanus is suspicious, and frustrated, by the priest’s arrival but the further they travel the more he begins to trust this strange man. From a plot standpoint, the character of Myrrdin adds an additional thread to the novel’s narrative. Through him, the author gets to explore differences and similarities between Christianity and the other religions that existed in that period.

The other standout character is Amarina. Not having been born into a life of privilege, she has come to rely solely on herself. Determined and resourceful, she is always focussed on the next opportunity to improve her station. Her actions are always quite controlled and watching how she acts and reacts to the situations around her is fascinating. She is neither good nor bad, she inhabits the grey area inbetween.

Meanwhile, in the heart of Rome, political intrigue is the order of the day. The Cult of Mithras and Christianity are at loggerheads, and a character called Corvus draws together his own plans. How these schemes relate to Lucanus is not immediately obvious, but as the plot unfolds Wilde’s writing draws these threads together masterfully.

James Wilde is the pen name of fantasy author Mark Chadbourn. I read the Age of Misrule trilogy some years ago at a friend’s recommendation, and it left such a distinct impression I re-read it on an annual basis. World’s End, Darkest Hour and Always Forever cover some similar thematic ground to Pendragon. Those who are familiar with that series will appreciate the subtle nods to those books that can be found if you choose to look. There is nothing too overt just passing references that the eagle-eyed amongst you are likely to spot.

Now I don’t want you thinking that Pendragon is an entirely cerebral affair, there is plenty of action to appreciate as well. The end of the Roman occupation of Britain was a brutal, uncertain time and violence never seemed to be that far away. To survive Lucanus, and the rest of the Arcani, need to fight and kill. It is a simple fact of their daily existence. Wilde doesn’t shy away from this element of the story, he embraces it. The battles that punctuate the narrative are intense, bloody affairs.

I do enjoy historical fiction, but I much prefer it when that historical fiction includes the merest hint of fantasy. Pendragon can really be viewed either way. The journey Lucanus takes features elements that could be interpreted in several ways.  Personally, I veer towards the mystical as this ties in nicely with the Arthurian mythos. Myrrdin could be a simple priest or he could be something far more otherworldly. Viewing his potions with modern eyes, he could be using hallucinogenic plants to alter perception, or could it really be magic? The author leaves the choice entirely up to you. It is likely this will drive some readers nuts, but I like this sense of ambiguity. Authors like Theodore Brun and Snorri Kristjansson are also producing fiction in a similar vein and I love it all.

Though it works successfully as a standalone, Pendragon can also be viewed as the beginning of a much larger tale. The events weaving together aren’t just changing individual lives, they are shaping a nation. Wilde’s latest skillfully deconstructs the myths of Arthur and Camelot but creating a stunning prequel. I’m not surprised I enjoyed Pendragon, it is written by one of my favourite authors, and he knows just how to deliver when it comes to story and characters. Once again, he has created a novel that not only entertains but it forces the reader to engage their brain. Any book that leaves you thinking about its content is a winner. Fiction doesn’t get much better than that in my opinion.

Back in 2010 Neil Marshall directed a film called Centurion based on the mysterious disappearance of the Roman Ninth legion set during a similar time period to Pendragon. The soundtrack, by Ilan Eshkeri, feels like a perfect fit with this novel. Hell, there is even a track called Wolves. You can’t do much better than that. Do yourself a favour, buy the book, buy the soundtrack and then enjoy them both together. You can thank me later!

Pendragon, book one in The Dark Ages, is published by Bantam Press and is available now. Highly recommended.

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