Britain, at the close of the 5th Century. The Romans are gone and the Britons are seeking to unite themselves under one ruler, but factional infighting and squabbles between the individual kingdoms are diverting them from the encroaching threat of the Saxons, who have landed on the east coast and made headway into the interior. The High King Uther Pendragon of Dumnonia is determined to drive them off the island, but he is old and dying and his son, Mordred, is but an infant. When Uther's death triggers a bloody war, his bastard son Arthur returns from Armorica with his hand-picked warriors to ensure that Mordred makes it to his majority and takes the throne. But the great druid Merlin is embarking on a great quest to unite the lost treasures of Britain in the hope of restoring the old gods, and his quest will bring Britain to its knees...
The Warlord Chronicles is Bernard Cornwell's take on the Arthurian epic. Published between 1995 and 1997, these books represented a major departure from Cornwell's established role as the author of the phenomenally successful Sharpe series of historical adventures set in the Napoleonic Wars, although the same eye for detail and combat is present. The Warlord Chronicles features greater emphasis on character-building and it is to Cornwell's credit he avoids the cliches. His Merlin isn't quite the same Merlin we've seen a hundred times before on film and in TV series, and his Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur are all similarly well-defined, retaining some of their traditional characteristics whilst being imbued with greater depth and motivation.
This is a big, complex story, but Cornwell keeps the page-count down by making it a first-person story narrated by the great warrior Derfel Cadarn from his retirement at an abbey many years after Arthur's death. To a certain extent this limits the action as an enormous number of events, some of them pivotal, occur off-page at battles or meetings where Derfel is not present. However, this keeps the action cracking along at a fiendish pace, and Derfel's viewpoint allows Cornwell to illustrate elements of 5th/6th century society that other takes on the legend gloss over, such the fanatical inter-faith squabbling between Christians, Druids and even the followers of the Roman gods who established a foothold in Britain during the conquest. Military tactics are present realistically as well. No Arthur strutting around a London-sized Camelot in full plate armour, for example. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages, with the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by the Roman Empire over seven centuries crumbling into nothingness along with the ruins of its great towns and cities. This sense of a truly great civilisation being lost is one of the most stunning achievements of the books, and is unrivalled by anything else I've read with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings' evocation of the once-mighty landmarks of Gondor and Numenor reduced to a few ruins. In the Chronicles, however, it is given greater pathos by being true.
There is also a quite amusing reference to the traditional Arthurian legend as Derfel watches his careful, accurate historical account being taken away and translated by an interpreter who decides his work is a bit dull and makes various unfotunate changes which we can tell are the beginnings of the rather unhistorical myth as we know it today.
The Warlord Chronicles (*****) consists of The Winter King (1995, UK, US), Enemy of God (1996, UK, US) and Excalibur (1997, UK, US) and is highly recommended.
Bernard Cornwell also wrote the lengthy Sharpe series about the Napoleonic Wars (now standing at twenty-three volumes), The Starbuck Chronicles (four volumes covering the American Civil War, with more to follow) and The Grail Quest, set during the Hundred Years' War. His current work is The Saxon Series, which covers the wars between Alfred the Great and the Vikings in the 9th Century. This series stands at four volumes with another three or four projected, although Cornwell is taking a break to pen a novel about the Battle of Agincourt before proceeding.