Jack Whyte,
The Saxon Shore
(Viking, 1995)

The Saxon Shore is the fourth book in a series retelling the legend of Camelot or, in this case, Camulod. The series starts before there is a Camulod, before Excalibur exists, and then continues through the generations through the time of King Arthur. The Saxon Shore begins shortly after Arthur's birth. But, while he does appear in the story, he is not one of the main characters of the story line. This is far more a story of Camulod and of Merlyn.

In Jack Whyte's telling, there is no magic in Camulod, just a lot of hard work and mostly honest people. Merlyn is a leader of men, a descendant of Camulod's founder, and his only otherworldly touch is that he "dreams dreams" which are prophetic. No wizard in this version, Merlyn is the commander of the army who, in times of crisis, acts as the leader of Camulod. He is the keeper of Excalibur and must find the person to pass the sword on to, either to own or to keep in turn 'til the rightful ruler is found.

The book is full of conflict, whether it is the internal politics of the colony as divisive blocks are formed, the wars which break out to settle issues of succession after Uther Pendragon's death without any known heirs, or the skirmishes of territorial conflict as King Athol tries to keep his current territory intact while seeking new lands. And this works, for in the context of a Britania shortly after the Romans pulled out, there would have been various power struggles and wars to fill in the void. It also works because the conflicts impact upon each other. In the various alliances which exist, how much help can be given is affected by the conflicts and threats each side is facing. In some cases, parties from one conflict end up playing a role in other matters entirely.

The story continues right from where the third book left off, and continues to be a well-written tale. The characters which seem larger than life are often the characters that legends are built around -- such as Merlyn, who uses his authority to further a dream and keep Camulod alive. And there are others who briefly step up and shift the events around them to their desires and needs, such as Donuil (Merlyn's best friend), King Athol and Peter Ironhair (who is a dangerous enemy of both Merlyn and Camulod).

The only quibble I had was that I could not quite convince myself that the Berbers, a North African tribe, would raid and land that far into Europe. Other than that one little detail, the book is an excellent read.

[ by Paul de Bruijn ]

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