Mystery series set in Britain's "Dark Ages" (the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, now referred to by scholars as the Middle Ages) are not uncommon. They've been
popular with readers since Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) wrote the first
Brother Cadfael novel in 1977 depicting life in 1137. Tony Hays's book, set six centuries earlier, is a welcome addition to the genre.
The Killing Way is not the story of knights and chivalry one might expect in a novel about King Arthur's time. Hays focuses on the historical Arthur and his environs. He strips away the legends and myths surrounding the well-known hero of the romantic age, portraying instead a warrior and leader who may have existed around 500 CE. Indeed, the book is more historical fiction than mystery, one of its major strengths being Hays's ability to convey a realistic sense of time and place. The reader is transported to what amounts to a garrison town in medieval Britain; there are no fine castles in this story.
The book's protagonist is Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, a former soldier who earned Arthur's respect in times past for his keen powers of observation. The book's jacket references the popular TV show CSI, but this gives an inaccurate impression of Malgwyn's abilities. He simply understands more about death than his peers (mostly due to the many battleground deaths he witnessed and caused). There's nothing anachronistic about his investigations or the tools at his disposal. Hays reveals him to be insightful, independent and dedicated to the truth, but at the same time damaged both emotionally and physically by prior events. The result is a highly appealing character of great depth.
Hays avoids incorporating many features of the Arthurian legend into this novel. Scholars agree that such elements as Lancelot and the Holy Grail are later additions to the tale and have no basis in fact (see sidebar). He does, however, do a very nice job of including some aspects of the legend in his narrative, allowing the reader to see how components of the tale like Arthur's round table and the sword in the stone may have passed from fact to myth over the centuries.
Hays's writing is exemplary for the most part, but it does exhibit the occasional flaw. The text can be too repetitive; for example the phrase "There's more going on here than is apparent" or some variation thereof seems to occur every few pages. In addition, several of the death scenes are overly melodramatic, with characters having ample opportunity to soliloquize before passing into the great beyond. Finally, from time to time the dialog strikes the reader as out of place modern English with a "thou" thrown in here and there to make it seem more authentic. Fortunately, these lapses do little to lessen the reader's enjoyment of the novel.
Overall The Killing Way is entertaining and will leave readers eagerly awaiting the promised sequel. It's sure to appeal to those who love a good mystery, as well as to historical fiction aficionados.
The Divine Sacrifice, a follow-up to The Killing Way, comes out on March 30, 2010. It continues the story of Malgwyn ap Cuneglas. Arthur and Malgwyn are called to the abbey of Glastonbury to settle a matter of great political importance - tin is being mined for export to the Empire. While there, Malgwyn and Arthur meet St. Patrick, a legend in the Church who is there on a mission of his own, to root out the heresy of Pelagius. When an aged monk is found cruelly murdered in his cell, Malgwyn is set with a problem that will test his skills as an investigator. His search for the truth may uncover a conspiracy that could endanger the kingdom.
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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