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The Kings and Queens of the Stone Age
Stonehenge - Bernard Cornwell
Member Name: marandina
Stonehenge - Bernard Cornwell
Date: 04/09/05, updated on 07/09/05 (1120 review reads)
Advantages: Spectacular story, well written and highly engaging.
Disadvantages: A little stilted at times
The fact is I rarely read historical fiction. This is something of a surprise given my love of historical fact. I always did like history at school and it was my strongest subject (in a pretty weak line up). So for all that maybe it was only a matter of time before I finally explored a relatively new genre for me in the form of Bernard Cornwell’s “Stonehenge”.
Set in Neolithic Britain, “Stonehenge” is a fictional account of how the world famous stone temple may have come to be. Part fiction, part hypothesis, the story follows three brothers whose lives criss-cross and intertwine against the backdrop of the lengthy building process of the Sky Temple (Stonehenge). One stormy day in Ratharryn, an outlander arrives on horseback. Wounded and vulnerable, his appeal for sanctuary is met with disdain by the ruthless Lengar who, whilst out hunting with his half-brother, Saban, kills the stranger and steals his belongings. The belongings turn out to be gold stolen from Sarmennyn and upon his return, Lengar is forced to yield the gold to his father and tribal chief, Hengall. Lengar subsequently murders his father and proclaims himself chief of the tribe.
Lengar enslaves his brother, Saban, but only after the stuttering, club-footed cripple, Camaban (the third brother) has successfully persuaded him not to have Saban killed. With the added humiliation of having lost his wife Derrewyn to Lengar, Saban is banished to live life as the slave of the giant trader Haragg. Saban swears his revenge. Meanwhile, representatives from the land of Sarmennyn arrive to argue for the return of their gold as the man who had been killed had stolen it. Not having the precious metal will bring bad luck to their lands and displease their Sun God – Erek. Lengar refuses to return the gold preferring to use it as a lever to wage war on the surrounding settlements.
Having survived being a sacrifice to the Sun God, Slaol (also known as Erek to those in Sarmennyn), Camaban travels to Ratharryn’s traditional enemy, the neighbouring settlement of Cathallo. There he persuades the one-toothed sorceress, Sannas to teach him all she knows about the world of magic and spells with the intention of returning to Ratharryn in a position of strength and respectability.
Upon his return he becomes the High Priest of Ratharryn and persuades Lengar to build a temple to the Gods. In exchange for the lozenges of gold, the people of Sarmennyn agree to the resettlement of the stones of one of their most sacred temples to Ratharryn. Lengar thinks that the temple is to be in honour of the Gods of war but Camaban’s real intention is somewhat different. Ordering the transfer of stones, Camaban’s charges embark on the monumental task of moving huge stone pillars by land, sea and river to realise Camaban’s vision and achieve his goal.
And so unravels a tale of death and destruction, love and hate, war and peace surrounded by a blanket of mysticism and Stone Age worship. The story becomes a sprawling canvas spanning many decades as key personnel float in and out of the story with many meeting a grisly demise in the manner and custom of life and death in Ancient Britain.
Born in London and raised in Essex, Bernard Cornwell is a well-known author albeit this was the first book of his that I’d tried. Responsible for the Sharpe series of books as well as the Arthurian Warlord Chronicles and the Starbuck series, Cornwell has a great pedigree so my expectations were high.
From a critical point of view, Cornwell’s writing style was dry at times with a rather stilted, matter-of-fact delivery. I guess he would have been trying to capture the reverential plateau of politics, which forms the undertow of the book but it did detract from the fluency on occasion. Moreover, Cornwell falls into the trap of JK Rowling with an over reliance on the use of adverbs to enhance a sentence (in my humble opinion but who is the multi-million dollar book writer here?). I lost count of how many times something was done “carelessly” which, itself seems a rather vague way of describing an action.
On the plus side, the story itself is good. The power to imagine what those times would have been like is clearly expressed backed no doubt by an impressive amount of historical research. The main characters are drawn beautifully with a Neolithic pen picture probably accurate for the period. The author never veers from the attitudes and standards for each of the main protagonists although beware the lucidity of the harsh approach to life and death of the time. I was even taken aback by the logicality of human sacrifice according to the Neolithic way of life although still shocked by the thought of women and children so routinely killed to satisfy rituals (and their acceptance of their fate). The relationship between the Gods and those that worship them is shown more acutely than I can recall experiencing in either a book or movie before now and it’s this relationship that provides the catalyst for nearly everything that happens in the book.
I found it easy to engage the main characters throughout the book with the colourful ideas of High Priests, Tribal Chiefs and witchcraft an enthralling notion that lifted the story from a mere recounting of what Ancient times may have been like to a Stone Age soap opera of epic proportion.
This version was the original hardback published in 1999. At 434 pages it was a lengthy read with the book split into 3 parts – “The Sky Temple”, “The Temple of Shadows” and “The Temple of the Dead”. Chapters were no more than a dozen pages and the historical note at the end is very interesting. It includes an explanation of place names and relevant historical fact to back up the stories events as well as give an insight into the various stone and wood temples that exist in Britain today. Most observers believe that the stones that make up Stonehenge originated in Wales and this is the theory that the writer sticks with. Sarmennyn is now South West Wales, Cathallo is Avebury whilst Ratharryn is Durrington Walls. Having been to see Stonehenge in Wiltshire, I found it easy to imagine where the different places were today even with the explanation at the back of the book rather than the front. If I hadn’t have known the geography then I would have found it equally interesting to have read the historical notes at the end to discover where the different places are.
I really enjoyed this book finding that having got started, the pages turned quickly and I was anxious to find out what happened next. A book like this will appeal to fans of historical fiction, those interested in monuments like Stonehenge or simply those out to read a good yarn. It does have strongly adult themes including graphic sex and violence and so shouldn’t really be read by anyone younger than pre-teen. I can see myself trying more historical fiction in the future and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to trying Cornwell again!
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.
Published by Harper Collins
Price: £16.99 for original hardback but have a scoot around on Amazon & EBay where I'm sure you'll pick up a paperback bargain!
Summary: A Novel of 2000BC