(Book 3 of the Warlord Trilogy)
by Bernard Cornwell
Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy set around 500 AD concludes with "Excalibur." You can check my recent articles for reviews of the two preceding books.
At the end of Book 2, Enemy of God, Arthur survived not only a Christian rebellion led by the cowardly Lancelot, but also betrayal by the love of his life, Guinevere. Now declaring himself the Emperor of Britain, Arthur is taking a firm control of ancient Britain with plans to unite the various kingdoms of the island to wipe out the invading Saxon horde.
Meanwhile, Merlin the Druid wizard is collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain--relics of magical powers--in order to stage a ritual that will bring the old Gods back to the island and wipe out not only the Saxons, but the Christians as well. In order for this to work, Merlin needs Excalibur and something much more precious that Arthur possesses. This creates a rift not only between Arthur and Merlin but our narrator Derfel and the crazed witch Nimue, who is Merlin's priestess and Derfel's former childhood friend and lover.
Not long after this ritual goes terribly wrong, Derfel is sent to rescue the imprisoned Guinevere from the invading Saxons. She, Derfel, and his band of warriors end up on an old mountain fort called Mount Baddon, from which they fight a desperate siege against the Saxons. During this we see that Guinvere still loves Arthur--and the feeling is more than mutual--and she's not such a conniving, evil [witch] after all.
But even with the defeat of the Saxons there are dark times ahead as the enemies of Arthur and Derfel continue to plot and scheme. As Merlin says, it all ends in tears, which anyone who knows anything about the Arthurian story already knows.
The conclusion of the trilogy wraps everything up nicely. The story doesn't sag as much under political intrigue as the two previous entries with the fiery ritual to lead things off, followed by the big battle at Mount Baddon, and then the smaller final battle to end the story. The real achievement is that by the end I really cared about all those who had survived since the beginning like Arthur, Derfel, Galahad, and even Guinevere, who really gets to shine in the Mount Baddon segment. At the start of the series there were so many characters, but by the time the end comes the less important ones have been winnowed out and we're left with only the important characters, whom we've either come to love or hate as the story has progressed. Because of that, when the end finally comes, it's bittersweet, which it always is at the end of a great series.
All the good things about the series from the other books are also present like the more realistic battles, the depth of the political intrigue, and the clash between religions that still resonates today. Because of all that, there's really nothing I'd speak against with this book. While the writing isn't Tolstoy, no one expects it to be and so for a rollicking historical read, I'd highly recommend this and the two that precede it.That is all.