Three Series Set In Medieval Britain You Should Read

Even after thousands of years, there’s still something that calls to me from ancient Rome. Especially when it comes to literature. I can’t say that I know all the ins and outs of the Roman Empire, I know a little about this, a little about that. But one thing I’ve always found myself drawn to is the epic failure of Rome’s conquest of Britannia and the formation of Medieval Britain.

Then there is my fascination with all things Arthurian. Knights, epic quests, the famed Round Table, Merlin –all of it pulls on my heart strings. Always has. Ancient codes, ancient magic, Welsh history. What is not to love?

Couple my Roman Britain interest with my fascination for Arthurian tales and you can guarantee I’m going to read any book that pairs those two together. Even ones that don’t if they’re set in medieval Britain. I can’t help myself!

There are three series I’ve read (some in-part) that definitely do the Dark Ages justice.

The Roman Britain Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

I’ve read Sutcliff’s trilogy most recently, and I finished all three stories, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers, in the compilation The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles. While the tales are aimed at a younger audience, I don’t think that should stop any older reader from enjoying them.

I picked up my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles after seeing the movie version of The Eagle of the Ninth. The dynamics between the two main characters Marcus, a Roman, and Esca, a slave, was rich and entertaining both on screen and on the page. My greatest disappointment was that the rest of the books did not follow these two but instead leapt forward in time to cover other stories about Marcus’s ancestors. Honestly, that disappointment didn’t last long.

What makes the series work so well is how this leaping in time allows Sutcliff to show the rise and fall of Rome exclusively in Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth illustrates the tensions between the newly settled Romans and the old Celtic tribes of Britain who are fighting their conquerers tooth and nail to protect their culture.

The Silver Branch shows Rome at its height of power, but also the instability that has arisen on the island with the heart of Rome so far away and the series of commanders who instate themselves as emperors. The main characters are loyal to Rome, wish to make their fathers’ proud as they follow in their footsteps, while they navigate an unsteady world.

Lastly, The Lantern Bearers paints a vivid image of the abandonment of Britain on Rome’s part and the new tensions that have developed across the land with the invasion of the Saxons. The main character of the last book, Aquila, is particularly broody and deals with the greatest adversity. His tale is the one that will haunt you. He was definitely my favourite.

What ties all three stories together so well is their mutual focus on pairs of young men at a critical point of development.  Their understandings of honour and their willingness to fight for what they believe is right add suspense. Not that right is always utterly black and white, as they find out. My only pique is the fact that Sutcliff’s women are few, and the ones she writes are boring.

A Dream of Eagles Series by Jack Whyte

There’s nothing negative for me to say about Whyte’s series, though it has been a long time since I started them. Each is rather lengthy, but once you’re into the story it feels like it needs to be longer. I have to admit I’ve only finished the first four books in the series so far. The only reason I haven’t read the next two, or the companion stories, is because I don’t want to be done! I’m rather attached to the world and I keep having bouts of separation anxiety.

This series also follows a lengthy period of time; it’s set directly during and after Rome’s abandonment of Britain. What makes it unique in my opinion is how it shows the commencement of the Dark Days of Britain and how one small faction does whatever it can to make a life worth living in the face of social annihilation. It’s evolution or destruction as far as they’re concerned. Moreover, Whyte writes this series without a great deal of magic involved. Aside from some gifts of foresight, even Merlin is more cleaver than magical in this world.

The first books, The Skystone and The Singing Sword are narrated by King Arthur’s great grandfather Publius Varrus. In them we see Publius, a master swordsmith, come together with his former legion general, Caius Britannicus. With a host of others, they form the foundations of Camelot while Roman sentiment is still relatively strong across the island. However, in The Singing Sword Rome starts to leave Britannia and so the people of Camelot form new bonds with their neighbours, the clan of the Pendragons, and define what it means to be a Briton.

In the next books, The Eagles’ Brood and The Saxon Shore, Merlin, or Caius Merlyn Britannicus, Arthur’s uncle, takes over the narration of the series. In this pair of novels we see the next generation of Briton’s deal with their newest enemies, the Saxons, not to mention the daily struggles of leading a colony in a war-torn place. My favourite aspects of these two books is the relationship between the cousins Uther and Merlin, and ultimately how Arthur comes to be born and raised by Merlin. The Saxon Shore especially shows what is meant by the Dark Ages and it’s with tenuous bonds that Merlin manages to maintain the legacy of this forefathers as he struggles under a mountain of personal grief.

The next pair, The Sorcerer Volume I: The Fort at River’s Bend and The Sorcerer Volume II: Metamorphoses, sometimes sold as a single work called The Sorcerer, I desperately need to read soon! Not to mention the companion book Uther that I’ve had my eye on for what seems like forever.

Whyte’s style follows in the tradition of historical fiction. After reading A Dream of Eagles you will truly wonder whether is was all real, whether Camelot really did rise then fall much like the empire that lead to it’s creation.

The Arthurian Saga/The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart

Ok, I’ve saved the best for last because Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors of all time and her Merlin series is unbelievably good. Yes, the entire five book series is called the Arthurian Saga, but Merlin is the star of the first three which comprise the Merlin Trilogy. This one will always hold a special place for me because it is the very first Arthurian series I read. Plus, the books aren’t enormous tomes!

It’s been a long time since I’ve read them, so my memory is a bit sparse compared to what I was able to recount about the stories above. They all deserve five stars; I still feel strongly about that.

While Stewart’s series is set right after the abandonment of Britain, there is very little focus on Rome or the legacy of Rome. Thus it does rely on its readers to intuit the cause of Britain’s Dark Days. What Stewart does focus on are the Welsh roots of the Arthurian legend; I learned more about Wales and the Welsh language from this series than I have anywhere else.

The saga begins with The Crystal Cave, a story devoted entirely to the creation of Merlin. We follow the magician’s upbringing and learn what makes him unique in this world of constantly-fighting lesser-kings. Near the end we also come to learn of the origins of Arthur and Merlin’s role in his conception. I love how human this book paints Merlin. And Stewart too shows Merlin as more of a genius of his time rather than a man of magic, though in those days those may have been one and the same.

Next comes The Hollow Hills, which follows Arthur’s upbringing and rise to manhood. Narrated by Merlin, we follow as he plays politician amidst the danger of a ravaged Britain in order to keep Arthur safe and to ensure that he is able to claim his rightful place as heir to the Pendragon when the time is right. As hard as Merlin works to keep Arthur’s path clear, mainly by keeping the boy hidden, there are other powers at work wishing to taint the future of the High King.

The Last Enchantment marks the final book in the Merlin Trilogy and book four in the Arthurian Saga. Once again narrated by Merlin, we celebrate as Arthur comes uncontested to power. However, there are evil forces who have made good on their desire to see Arthur’s reign come to an ignominious end –not that we’ll see the end in this installment, just the threads that will lead to it later on. The focus of this story is the court of King Arthur and Merlin’s role as adviser. It’s fraught with tension, especially while the plot of Arthur’s half-sister unfolds.

I’m torn when it comes to The Wicked Day, book four. Mostly because Stewart makes me love Mordred and Arthur, and then she lets their stupid pride get the best of them. But I suppose you can’t change legend or history, depending on what you believe. Merlin is absent from this book and it’s told in third person, unlike all the others. In it the tale of Mordred is revealed in the tradition of Merlin and Arthur in the Merlin Trilogy, and shows his great attempt to become more than an instrument of doom. His failure is horribly tragic and wonderfully detailed.

Finally, much to my surprise, there is a fifth book in the Arthurian Saga! I came across The Prince and the Pilgrim while browsing the shelves at Powell’s Books in Portland when I visited a couple of years ago. I may have said, “holy shit, it can’t be,” when I realized what treasure I held in my hands. I’m looking forward to reading it but I’m still mad about Arthur and Mordred, which is why I haven’t yet picked it up.

I must mention one aspect of Stewart’s series that I find troubling. The depiction of male magic versus female magic really sets my teeth to grinding. Obviously, Merlin’s magic is all good since he works consistently to help Arthur. His nemesis is the truly evil Morgause, who uses her feminine wiles and witch magic against Arthur at every opportunity. Morgause is evil, no question. But there isn’t a powerful woman in the whole series to balance her out. The Lady of the Lake is simply too much of a side player.

I take issue with any storyteller who depicts female sexuality and power as evil, especially when her foil is a largely abstinent man. However, I suppose that is the foundation myth Stewart had to use. And these were written primarily in the 70s.

And there you have it! After compiling this list I realize that while I’ve read a number of books set in Medieval Britain, I’ve only read a few series. I’d love to rectify that, so if you have any to suggest please let me know!


*Please note this post contains affiliate links. Should you click on the links and purchase any of the books I’ve mentioned I will receive a small commission from Amazon at no extra cost to you. All funds are reinvested into E.V. Writes, so thank you in advance for your support.


Because I was all negative in my last post, I thought today I would be positive and tell you about something new and exciting in my life. Ok, if you’re not a huge book nerd you won’t find this very interesting, but I’m happy about it so I don’t care.

After An Evening with Zadie Smith (yes, all things circle back to that magnificent night!), as my friend and I stood in the parking lot chatting things over, we had a thought.

Well, the topic of book clubs came up, and how we both wished we were a part of one which induced a revelation. Yes, I’m sure you’re wondering why we aren’t in one now. You see, we live 50 km apart and five years ago we tried the online book club thing with a few friends of ours and it didn’t work out.

My friend tried joining a book club with her mom but it didn’t work for her. And I don’t know anyone with the same reading tastes as me who is also relatively close to my age group near me, so I haven’t even tried. Plus, I’m not good at evening commitments.

Now we have a better plan. We’re starting our own mini-book club, and we’re going to meet up every two months at a place that serves caffeine and discuss the book we read, maybe including outside sources. We may or may not let other people come to those meetings. We haven’t decided.Gone with the Wind

I’ve taken the liberty of naming our book club, LE BOOK CLUB, using our initials and all caps to make it look awesomely legitimate. She’ll thank me later.

I didn’t realize how much I missed the idea of sitting down and talking face to face with someone about a book we’ve both read. Sure, I’m an avid fan of Goodreads and occasionally discuss books on there, but it’s not the same. One, I don’t have the endless hours to spend on the platform typing like I did once upon a time. Two, there’s something special about an in-person discussion with another human. I must be missing my English days.

I was honoured to pick our first book, Gone with the Wind, and I must have it read by mid-April. Did I mention I’m really really excited?

Happy reading!


Wry Moments of Inspiration

White TeethI’ve been reading a lot of great books by some fabulous and talented women lately. I just finished Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which I discussed at length –probably too long, but tough– in my last post, and I’m roughly a third of the way through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Though Smith’s story is a tour-de-force coming of age and a no-holds-barred look at being a person of colour in a xenophobic country, Strayed’s is a memoir about hitting rock bottom and the lengths one will go to crawl out of the dark and try to find themselves on the other side.

What both tales have in common are that they are primary examples of why I want to write. What both women share about the human experience underscores why artists do what they do.

What I’m writing right now can’t compare to White Teeth. I’m pretty sure nothing I write ever will, but the focus of my book is far too removed from it. Wild, though, I’m feeding off of Wild. In RA1 I am trying to showcase that my main character is very close to an emotional rock bottom, which is very difficult because I’m not showing any kind of before. Mostly because her emotional descent has taken place over the span of nearly a decade and I want to catch her in the worst of it.

She’s not a destructive sort, like Strayed. But as I get to know her, get a feel for how she was trained, I’m seeing that she takes bad risks. Risks that could well see her die. I guess that’s a different kind of destructive.Wild

I’ve hit emotional rock bottom, but I’ve never been the type to put myself at bodily risk. My survival instinct is too hardwired. But reading about Strayed’s experience is enlightening, and I have an idea of what I can do with my character.

If I can transmit even half the emotional power of either book into my own writing I will call myself an epic winner. This is why reading widely is so important as a writer. You learn and grow and become better.

I feel bad that I’m almost feeding off of Strayed’s misery, but that’s kind of why she published the book in the first place, right? So others could learn from her? I wish that I’d been writing my story when I went to see her speak in 2013, I would have asked about that.

These are my latest moments of wry inspiration, though I don’t know why I think these two stories are an odd place to find inspiration for my dark fantasy novel.

Selections of White Teeth: Prepping for a Night with Zadie Smith

I’m hardly new to the literary world, and before I reserved my tickets to see Zadie Smith at the University of Calgary on February 11th, I had intended to read White Teeth. It’s nice to be spurred into something you intended to do.

Smith is a force in the writing world. Her name carries gravitas and prestige, you know if she’s mentioned in the headline of an article it’s going to be a good read. Her contribution to literature can’t be overstated. There’s a lecture taking place this week about said contributions and I’m choked I can’t make it.

As I write this post and reminisce about White Teeth, which I have just finished, I am floored not only by Smith’s skill as a wordsmith and translator of the human experience, but by her precognition. I don’t want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, but I think you can read the block quotes I’ve transcribed without ruining anything. I’ll provide a little context just so you can understand Smith’s power.

As you read, please remember that White Teeth was published in 2000. So you have to think that the manuscript was submitted around 1998, not to mention the time spent writing the book. We all know what happened in September 2001 (not that that wasn’t the eruption of a lot of history, but still).

For the first two quotes, the scene follows Millat, a main character we watch grow up, and his friends who are about 14 years old. They’re on their way to a rally in which the protestors are decrying Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, though Smith never once states that outright. All of these kids were born in England to immigrant parents. Millat is a Muslim whose ancestors are proud Bangladeshis:

“their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teacher’s comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with them any more because they looked like trouble. They looked like trouble in stereo.”

White Teeth“To be more precise, Millat hadn’t read it. Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a line-up of other writers (irresistible, this line-up of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Rad-clyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a film-maker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshipped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands.” (Chapter 9: Mutiny!)

Irie is yet another character we follow as she grows up. She is the daughter of a woman born in Jamaica who came to England with her own mother at about 16 and a white Englishman much older than her mother. In this scene she’s in her (what I would call high school) English class and the teacher is making the students read Shakespeare’s sonnet 130. When called on, Irie hopes for a brief moment to read Shakespeare’s dark lady love as a woman of African descent. The white teacher squashes that desire immediately:

“Irie reddened. She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection, but it was receding […] the reflection that Irie had glimpsed slunk back into the familiar darkness.” (Chapter 11: The Miseducation of Irie Jones)

Hortense is Irie’s grandmother, a zealous Jehovah’s Witness. Though her faith is really a source of humour in the book, there’s almost respect for it, but especially her yearning. Just prior to this comment she’s telling Irie about the young white man she helped bring to the church who has risen higher in its ranks in 15 years than Hortense managed during her full 8 decades of life:

“‘I’ve waited fifty years to do someting else in de Kingdom Hall except clean,’ said Hortense sadly, ‘but dey don’ wan’ women interfering with real church bizness…’” (Chapter 15: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism)

Here we hear from Samad, Millat’s father, the intelligent, promising man born in Bengal, destined for greatness who has ended up with a bum hand working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant. After years of disillusionment in England, the country he chose to move to with his wife, where they saw their babies birthed, this is how he feels:

“‘…who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong no where.’” (Chapter 15: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism)

What’s especially powerful about this moment with Samad is that his twin boys, one he sent back to his homeland to be properly educated as a Muslim, have veered off the rails of the tracks he hoped to send them on. The one he kept at home has grown into a radicalized Muslim, the one he sent away has returned to him an atheist. They are the symbols of this devil’s pact he can’t undo.

Near the end of the book, Samad is sent outdoors to quiet the singing protests of some Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet as he comes upon the oldest ladies in the crowd singing at the top of their lungs about God and their love of him, he finds he can’t quiet them. He’s too envious:

“And every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be.” (Chapter 19: The Final Space)

And because I can’t help myself, because I think this next statement of Samad’s goes so fittingly with the one above, I must share it:

“He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land – horrible, persistent – the thirst that lasts your whole life.” (Chapter 20: Of Mice and Memory)

Finally, the last quote I want to share comes from a minor character who circles in at the end after entering the story in a peculiar fashion in the first chapter. Here, Mo the butcher has become a recent convert to the radical Muslim group Millat has joined forces with. There are two main reasons he’s succumbed to them, the second of which is the most important. Before this quote he recounts the numerous –numerous– beatings he’s received in his shops from Londoners, and the police he’s attempted to report the horrific crimes to:

“But they all had one thing in common, these people. They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies and petitions the world could offer. It had brought him more securely within the fold of his faith than even a visitation from the angel Jabrail could have achieved…” (Chapter 18: The End of History versus The Last Man)

Obviously I’ve over simplified my contextual bits but White Teeth truly deserves to be seen as a whole, even though these nuggets are golden. Can you feel the genius here? I am humbled by the different experiences Smith has imparted with her cast. I’ve had my moments of feeling like I don’t belong, but as a third generation Canadian with a good education, blonde hair, and green eyes, it is nothing like what these victims of imperialism have experienced.

Smith’s ability to show the roots of radicalism in both its forms is awe inspiring. I may never understand the acts of zealots, but I understand how they get to that place. I understand that the fragile human psyche can only take so much abuse, face so much derision, before it clings to any ray of hope it can find. And anger, I definitely understand anger, and the roiling need to act on it. While I identify far more with her characters who seek out rational thought and leave behind the shackles of religion, I understand that they too are pieces cast about in a storming sea waiting for relief.

I truly am a believer in the notion that if you tell someone they’re bad and/or worthless enough times they start to believe it. Living in a conservative place I hear comments about immigrants all the time that make my stomach churn. People become self-fulfilling prophecies when they’re trod on enough times, whether the response becomes despair, rage, or an attempt to blend in in whatever way possible. We –we the white people who think we have a right to every place– have to get over this idea and this need we have to alienate other cultures. It’s false, it’s harmful, it’s ludicrous.

Never have a read a book so relevant to the current political climate. Right now many countries the world over are doing their best to help settle the Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland. This is a book the “native” citizens of those countries should read because it might spur their humanity into taking over instead of their prejudices.

I have roots all over Europe, and while I’m fascinated by those ancestries, I am firm in Canadianness. When I think of my history I am not adrift, I know where I fit, where I belong, where I am welcome. The fact that the characters in this book, that the people they reflect in the world, don’t is a horrible tragedy.

In those moments where I think back on this book these are the parts I’m going to remember. I can’t wait to see Zadie Smith, and I intend to write a post about the experience.

Who Are You Jealous Of?

Winsor McCay, 1930 by Alan Light via Flickr

Winsor McCay, 1930 by Alan Light via Flickr

While meandering the multitude of articles covering aspects of writing earlier this month, I came across one that presented something I’d never heard before. While the article is called How to find your voice, I didn’t take much away from the topic of voice because not only do I agree wholeheartedly with the author, but it’s nothing new.

However, he covers a workshop, and in part of the transcription provided, is this little gem:

Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them.

I’ve heard of finding writers you admire and emulating them. I’ve heard of writing the books you want to read. I’ve heard of rewriting books that you think you can write better. This idea of jealousy is novel and exciting as far as I’m concerned.

Because Collins, the lady transcribed, hits the nail on the head!

The stories that stay with me, and I mean really stay with me, are the ones that kind of make my chest swell. I read them and get helplessly absorbed in them, to the point I wish real life didn’t exist so I didn’t have to eat, sleep, or all the other necessities, so I can just keep on reading. The ones where when they end I feel like a piece of me has broken off and I don’t know if I’ll ever find it anywhere but in the pages of the book I have to put down. The ones where if someone says they’re name my heart ka-thunks. I’m sure if someone were to scan my brain in the middle of reading my synapses would be flashing like fireworks.

There have been very few books that I’ve finished and stared at the ceiling wishing I’d written them. Hell, wishing I could write anything half as amazing. I used to think this was admiration, but it’s jealousy.

I’ve tried to do the emulating thing and I come off sounding like a hack. But that’s a good thing. The story wasn’t mine, or at least didn’t have the proper flavouring to make it mine. Yet it still let me learn something new. And I’m not going to stop trying, because obviously the goal now is to make some future writer equally jealous with my work. And that’s no small feat.

What stories have inspired this reaction in you?