The Skystone (The Camulod Chronicles, Book 1)

The Skystone - Jack Whyte The work of Arthurian literature that captured my imagination as a teen was Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave about Merlin--it was even assigned to me in high school. My knowledge up to then of King Arthur was that he was pure fantasy. Although there are fantasy elements in Stewart's tale, what fascinated me is that she did root him in the history of the Dark Ages after Rome's fall, much as Mary Renault had done for the Bronze Age Theseus in The King Must Die. Later I'd fall in love with T.H. White's Once and Future King, which bases itself on legend rather than history, with overt fantasy and anachronistic medieval touches. And I loved that book greatly as well. Both works are by first-rate authors, and feature absolutely skillfully woven narrative and beautiful prose. That's not the case with Whyte's Camulod Chronicles. The style is decent enough, and the first person voice of Publius Varrus is engaging enough to propel me through, but there's no doubt in my mind he's not a writer in the same league as Stewart and White. But what I did find so fascinating in this book was that this is at the opposite end of the spectrum from T.H. White. Jack Whyte scrubs away all the fantastical elements of the legend, writing us a story of Camelot that might have been from all we know of history. And seeing the familiar elements of the legend from that perspective is fascinating. The skystone of the title, for instance, is a meteor that makes the raw material for what becomes Excalibur. There's no mention of an Arthur or Merlin or Guinevere here yet--not even of Arthur's parents Uther or Ygraine. The back of the book tells us Publius Varrus and his former commander Caius Britannicus are two great-grandfathers of Arthur. This book covers from 369AD, when there was a major incursion of Scots and Picts over the Hadrian Wall to 388AD, when Maximus, a commander in Britain, tried to become Emperor. So this book ends over a hundred years before the time King Arthur (if he existed) flourished. I also loved the picture of the era, how rich Whyte made his world. So much is brought in to evoke the fading Roman world. Part One works well as a work of military fiction dealing with Publius' and Caius' time as officers in the Roman legions. But the rest of the book deals with Publius' work as a smith and the growing idea of "the Colony" in Western Britain set up as a haven where the best of Roman civilization can survive the coming invasions that Caius foresees. The book takes in economic and political forces, metallurgy, sciences, engineering. Some complain it's infodumpy and takes in a centuries later perspective it wasn't possible for those in the crumbling empire to foresee, but I found it fascinating for how it all tied into Arthurian legend from dragons to the Lady of the Lake into a strictly realistic tale.