1990s Historical Fiction

Stonehenge – Bernard Cornwell

In preparation for hearing Bernard Cornwell talk I wanted to read one of his books. The reviews on Amazon seem to indicate that his King Arthur books are the best, but unfortunately my library didn’t have a copy of The Winter King in stock and so I ended up with Stonehenge. I was equally intrigued by the historical setting, but the Amazon reviews were a lot less enthusiastic and so I wonder if I picked the wrong book to try.

Stonehenge gives a plausible account of events leading up to the construction of the iconic neolithic monument. The story focuses on two brothers who are battling to become the tribal King. We witness the tribal feuds and rituals and learn about the way people lived in 2000 BC.

The historical detail was fascinating and there were several scenes, especially those containing ritual sacrifice, that affected me deeply. The problem was that the sections between these gripping scenes were too long – the plot meandered and I frequently found myself loosing interest. It was a real chore to read much of this book and I almost gave up a few times. I had no emotional connection to the characters and although I learnt about their belief systems, I didn’t feel as though I really understood their fears or motivations.

I have been lucky enough to read several very well written books recently and Stonehenge stood out for the averageness of its writing. I can’t pinpoint what was wrong, but I felt that the scenes failed to come alive. The writing was serviceable, rather than special.

Saban hardly slept, but instead lay and listened to the noises of the night. Once he heard the crackling of twigs, the sound of a great body moving through the brush, then silence again in which he imagined a monstrous head, fangs bared, questing up to the elm. A scream sounded on the ridge, and Saban curled into a ball and whimpered. An owl screeched. The boy’s only comforts were the stars of his ancestors, the cold light of Lahanna silvering the leaves and his thoughts of Derrewyn. He thought of her a lot. He tried to conjure up a picture of her face. Once, thinking about her, he looked up and saw a streak of light slither across the stars and he knew that a god was descending to the earth which he took to be a sign that he and Derrewyn were destined for each other.

Overall I feel that the negatives far out-weigh the positives for this book and so I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.

Did I just pick the wrong Cornwell book?

Are the problems I describe present in the King Arthur books?

18 replies on “Stonehenge – Bernard Cornwell”

I ve not read cromwell hard to say have one of sharpe books from times offer few years ago but its just sat on the shelf since then ,but the tv series of sharpe always seems good ,all the best stu

Well at least you tried him. Which is something I cannot claim to have done. He is wildly popular, but that really doesn’t mean anything does it? There is no accounting sometimes for the books that end up on the best seller list.

Vivienne, There are lots of interesting sections if you are willing to plough through the rest of the book. If you have a special interest in Stonehenge then you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.

I think thats just what happens when you read too many good quality well written books, books like these stand out like a sore thumb. I had that problem with The Island, I’m sure if I read that 5 years ago I would have really enjoyed it.

Jessica, I do wonder if my enjoyment of these books is slowly being ruined by reading literary fiction or whether I would always have had problems. I haven’t read The Island yet, but I’ll take your advise and avoid it 🙂

I sadly can’t answer either of your questions, since Stonehenge was also my first Cornwell book, and I had the same reaction to it as you did (and couldn’t give it up for a different book, since I was on a plane!), and thus didn’t read any further into his bibliography.

Your point about not understanding (or caring about) the characters’ motivations is dead on.

As I’ve mentioned in my comment on your initial Bernard Cornwell, this was my first book of his I’ve read, as now you can understand why I stopped there. I felt the same way: no emotional connection, the characters could all die that I wouldn’t care.

I have The Winter King on my TBR, but it’s not on the priority list…. Will you still give it a try?

Alex, I am willing to give Bernard Cornwell another try, but I think I’ll wait until I find someone that had the same problems with Stonehenge, but still enjoyed one of his others. Let me know if you ever get round to Winter King!

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