You’ll be forgiven for overlooking that Jack Whyte’s The Skystone is an adaptation of Arthurian legend. Believe it or not, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are nowhere to be found. Instead, Whyte’s story is about Roman general Caius Britannicus’ dream for Britain.
The Skystone is set amidst the Roman withdrawal from Britain. Britannicus’ legion has faced hard fighting along Hadrian’s Wall. They have retreated to Londinium, and the Romans are about to leave permanently. The Romans may be retreating, and their Empire may be ending, but Britannicus elects to retire to his British estates. What’s more, Britannicus is determined to create a bastion of civilization that will survive the fall of Rome.
It’s a compelling premise and even the most modest history buff knows that things are about to get much “darker” in Europe before they get better. Utopian societies are often planned for remote islands, but readers know that this island is not as remote as it seems. Britannicus, for all his brilliance as a general, politician, and visionary, has charted a course for his descendants that will be marked by centuries of raids and invasions. How can Britannicus’ colony survive?
Fortunately, all of those concerns are far down the road, and Whyte prefers to approach his subject gradually. In fact, although Britannicus is the architect on whom this story relies, he is not the protagonist. Instead, we are told the story of Publius Varrus, a wounded legionary and a talented blacksmith who recalls his time fighting with Britannicus in various campaigns. Although he may seem a simple man, Varrus is more a philosopher than he realizes. In fact, he will become a pivotal figure in the creation of Britannicus’ colony.
Whyte has a talent for action scenes, and he adds a few political intrigues, feuds, and rivalries to keep his reader occupied. However, the bulk of The Skystone is about meticulously building a colony that can give rise to Arthur, a king who can unite the British against their invaders. As such, although there are a few duels and romances, The Skystone is primarily concerned with reflection, consideration, and especially dialogue. Whyte’s heroes work their way carefully through ideas that a contemporary reader would take for granted, and Whyte has a talent for solving mysteries within the framework of a 5th century Roman soldier’s worldview.
Perhaps the most difficult mystery of all is that of the Skystone. It produces a better quality of metal than anything else Varrus and Britannicus have ever encountered. Where did it come from, and where can more be found? At the start of the novel, Varrus only has enough to make a knife, but what if there was enough to make a sword?
A 5th century audience might find such a sword magical.
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.