When we think of Arthurian legends, we tend to imagine certain things. Merlyn is ancient and wise, and Arthur is strong and a leader of men. In his A Dream of Eagles series (Camulod Chronicles in America), Jack Whyte does his best to undermine these expectations. When we meet Merlyn in The Eagle’s Brood, the third book of the series, he is a warrior. Now, we meet Arthur, a toddler with golden eyes. Will he prove fit to carry the sword that Publius Varrus forged in The Singing Sword?
Unfortunately, we don’t find out in The Saxon Shore.
Instead, The Saxon Shore follows Caius Merlyn Britannicus (still known as Caius), who finds himself the leader of a beleaguered Camulod. Last bastion of civilization or not, Camulod has been sorely weakened by its battles in The Eagle’s Brood, and Caius is doing everything in his power to ensure that the colony survives. Times are desperate indeed, particularly with the oncoming Saxon raids. If the colony is not strong, they may not be able to withstand the Saxons. However, Merlyn is also charged with raising and training Arthur. If nothing else, it’s a difficult set of challenges for Caius to overcome.
Whyte takes a decidedly temporal approach to Merlyn’s legend. Actually, he has fun creating scenes that would go on to prove Merlyn’s reputation as a notorious wizard. In one scene, Caius is able to shoot an entire herd of deer with his bow thanks to a peculiar wind. Later, he and his twin attack brigands from two nearby hills; it almost looks as though one man is teleporting back and forth between those hills. Up to this point, Caius has been a legendary leader of men, one so influential that it seems as though Arthur, no matter how impressive, could never fill his shoes. Whyte, as always, calls upon history to provide him with an out, and he inflicts leprosy on Caius/ Merlyn to alienate him from his men (if not in The Saxon Shore, surely it will happen eventually in one of the later novels).
As always, Whyte does a fine job with his battle sequences and world building, and we make it all the way to Ireland in this installment. Almost certainly, a few readers were unable to make it through The Skystone and The Singing Sword, but it is truly gratifying to see all that foundational work paying off. And if nothing else, Whyte truly has provided the details to take his Roman legionaries, step by step, all the way to this proto-Round Table colony.
However, the story is not over yet. Arthur is still a young man and his destiny awaits. The Saxon Shore is, beyond any doubt, a work in the midst of a series, but it begins to pay dividends on the investments of the early novels in this unusual historical fantasy series.
The Camulod Chronicles — (1992-2005) Publisher: Everyone knows the story — how Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, how Camelot came to be, and about the power struggles that ultimately destroyed Arthur’s dreams. But what of the time before Arthur and the forces that created him? How did the legend really come to pass? Before the time of Arthur and his Camelot, Britain was a dark and deadly place, savaged by warring factions of Picts, Celts, and invading Saxons. The Roman citizens who had lived there for generations were suddenly faced with a deadly choice: Should they leave and take up residence in a corrupt Roman world that was utterly foreign, or should they stay and face the madness that would ensue when Britain’s last bastion of safety for the civilized, the Roman legions, left? For two Romans, Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, there can be only one answer. They will stay, to preserve what is best of Roman life, and will create a new culture out of the wreckage. In doing so, they will unknowingly plant the seeds of legend — for these two men are Arthur’s great-grandfathers, and their actions will shape a nation… and forge a sword known as Excalibur.