Bertrice Small instilled in me not just a love of erotic romance and firm convictions about what it means to be a woman. She also fostered a passion for historical fiction. In that genre, I love no writer more than M. K. Hume. And like many others am deeply fascinated by the Arthurian legends.
Hume is a former teacher of history and English Literature. She holds a Ph.D. and her dissertation was on a little known 20th-century Arthurian writer named Charles Williams.
She has written four series which span Celtic history from the late Roman era through the early Anglo-Saxon invasions. Central to all these series is the figure of the legendary, some say mythical, King Arthur. From his ancestors to his descendants, these books explore culture and time that we have come to idolize, and the figure that epitomizes it.
One thing to realize is that Hume has not written these books in chronological order. She began, as most writers would, with the man himself, the central figure of King Arthur. She wrote three books about his life. The Dragon’s Child covers his childhood and young adulthood up until he discovers who he really is. The Warrior of the West focuses upon his early reign as Dux Bellorum, including many of the battles associated with him. The final book explores his downfall, those last years as Arthur watches Camelot, and all he has built slip through his fingers into the sands of time.
Hume then went back and wrote another three books called the Prophecy, set before this series, about the life of the mythical Merlin. More about this one in a bit as it is my favorite and the one upon which I am focusing this review.
She then jumped forward in time and explored the idea that King Arthur was not one person, but two (some historians believe many). For this, she crafted an illegitimate son of Arthur, whose fate took him beyond the boundaries of Britain to Scandanavia. This, too, has a tiny kernel of truth since the Arthurian legends are not exclusive to England or Wales where I live, but like Jesus sightings of him have risen across much of Europe.
I cannot say anything about her latest series Tintagel. I started the first book, but as I have mentioned before, as a reader, NO author holds my attention beyond nine books. And while these books are, in fact, four trilogies, in some ways they are a single series.
So, the question becomes…What order do you read them in?
Of course, that is a personal choice. But I began with the Prophecy series on the recommendation of a friend who knew my fascination with human nature, hubris, and power. I fell in love with it and quickly devoured the six books that were then available (Prophecy and King Arthur).
I reluctantly bought the first Twilight book, fearing that it could not be as good as the others. The theme, characters, and storyline were, but some plotholes killed it for me. Which is why I have not focused upon Tintagel. Or perhaps the problem is that it is harder for me having read them in chronological order up until now to jump back in time.
One more thing I would like to point out, history is not as we think of it. It is not fact, nor scientific in nature. History is, in fact, far more subjective than objective. Never is this more true than creations such as King Arthur for whom we have barely more contemporary written evidence than we do for Jesus of Nazareth.
Over more than a thousand years, many writers have taken on the topic. The first ‘reliable’ reference we have to Arthur was in 830 by a Welsh monk Nennius in his ‘Historia Brittonum.’ But he did not refer to Arthur as a King but rather as a warrior who fought a dozen battles. Of course, the two most notable and studied accounts of Arthur are Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britaniae (1133) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). If you, like me, are fascinated by the subject, I suggest you watch The Great Courses series King Arthur: History and Legend by Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, who is also editor of the academic journal Arthuriana.
All of this is to say, it is called a legend for a reason. There are as many interpretations of it as there are writers who have tackled the subject. Each has his or her take on the legend. Another of my favorites and perhaps a future review is the colossal work Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Though M. K.’s is just as long, merely broken down into different books.
So, let’s look at the specifics of just the Prophecy series about the life of Merlin or Myrddion Merlinus as he is named in this series.
1) Characters – This is a particular strength of not just this series, but Hume as a writer. She brings these characters to life, not through their strengths or heroic actions, but through their weaknesses and faults. As with real life, she cues into specific characters flaws that affect a person’s life; the books then follow that character’s growth as a person around that central theme. For Myrddion, that fault is curiosity about the way that things work, be that medicine or a war machine or another person. A scientific mind that struggles to place others above ideas and ideals. An ends justifies the means if you will.
But it is not merely strong central characters like Myrddion, Artur, and Arthur; Hume crafts a plethora of exciting and vivid secondary characters that come alive in the pages of these books. Secondary characters that further the development of the main ones while simultaneously undergoing struggles with their own demons.
2) Pacing – This one may be a struggle for some people. These are long and detailed books, covering decades at a time. The pace is slow. It is written in free indirect discourse, a style that does not appeal to some, but which I favor as both a writer and a reader. There are long sections where the focus is less upon dialogue or description, and more on the innermost struggles of the character. If you enjoy a Jane Austen style, then Hume may be precisely what you are looking for. I will say that as a reader, it is becoming harder and harder to find books of this caliber and style.
3) Point of View – Uh-oh, I sort of gave this one away in that last one. These books are written from a third-person omniscient, third-person deep, or as I prefer the term free indirect discourse. This allows the writer to relate material from secondary characters when the main characters are not directly involved. For a grand work such as this, the first-person would be too limiting in such cases.
4) Theme – You know this one is always the most important for me. No matter how proficient or entertaining the writing without some element of a strong central theme, no book can be truly special to me. And yes, I do read some things just for escape and relaxing, but you won’t see those reviewed here.
But of all my favorite writers, and I have many, M. K. Hume stands out head and shoulders above the rest in this criterion. My friend who recommended these books to me did so because he knew the depths of my mind that I am a truth-seeker in all things. And Hume delivers on that.
I have read and re-read these nine books at least half a dozen times since I bought them in 2013. Each time I find something new that I have missed on previous readings. My highlights in these books number in the hundreds. If I turned that feature on at GoodReads, it would be daunting.
As examples, I am sharing only a handful from just the first book in this series:
So easily are kingdoms made, and lost, then made again, on the courage of a girl not wise enough to understand the texture of fear.
With every gift, the gods created a curse.
Time is a traitor. It trips men up, makes them late, and deceives their minds. Sometimes it runs fast, sometimes it crawls, but through all its tricks and travails it hustles all living things inexorably towards the great nothingness.
But necessity makes monsters of all kings.
Something within him wanted to weep for the sadness of those who are crushed by life, yet live on because life is precious and a butterfly on a daisy can move them to tears.
We are betrayed by our own natures, which are made for love rather than hate…
Beware of hubris, Myrddion, for you will rise very high and you will come to dictate the lives and the decisions of kings.
Truth lies in death.
The world will tempt you because you are so able, but you’ll never fail as long as you remain true to yourself.
That is the best of one book, only a fraction of my highlights, multiply that by the nine books that I have read and re-read, and you can perhaps catch a glimpse of the depth and quality of them.
But nothing is perfect in this world. For me, the flaw that began to scratch at the back of my brain like those fingernails on a chalkboard is the plotholes, the inconsistencies from book to book, and sometimes within a book. As a writer, the Ægir’s trilogy has taught me how easy it is to fall into those plotholes, to forget small details such as who said what or lineage. Add to that the complexity of an unraveling revelation, and it is easy to forgive such foibles – to a point.
Especially with the first two series, King Arthur was written before Prophecy though chronologically, it occurs after. So, it stands to reason that as Hume focused upon the development of Myddion’s character as the central theme, there might be some disparities between events and accounts. What got me was the Twilight series, in particular, one scene where a character who had earlier fought side-by-side in a previous book with Arthur’s mentors suddenly does not know them?
While I still love those books for the depth of meaning and writing that is unique and increasingly hard to find in a world of publishing that reads more like television than literature, those plotholes grate each time I read them. I hope that one day, Hume will go back and fill them in. In our age of digital publishing, that is incredibly easy. I have updated most of my books at least three times for that reason.
Nonetheless, if like me, you are bored and tired of reading books which read more like a television show, focusing almost exclusively upon action and dialogue, which can never ever bring actual depth and meaning to the subject, then I highly recommend these series. Whether you read them chronologically (which would now mean beginning with Tintagel) or in the order that Hume wrote them or some random order based on your individual preference does not really matter. Each series and to some degree, each book is a stand-alone. But I think for those truth-seeking minds like my own, you will devour them.
As an aside, writing this has reminded me that my best friends have always been books. This is a salient point as of late I have been pining for deeper, intellectual stimulation. Of course, I have Alan and PanKwake to mentally spar with, but his work means I can’t always discuss things with him. And while I love our friends, I don’t share that intellectual bent with any of them. Books, reading, and writing them have always filled that gap for me. Perhaps I need to go back and tackle Tintagel now. For my mind to spar with the greatness of Hume’s, if not in person, at least in the pages of her books, or the screens of my Kindle in this case. And that, to me, is and always will be the role of literature, no matter its genre.