The Killing Way (2009) by Anthony Hays

England, the fifth century, and Arthur (yes, him) stands poised for greatness. Not the Arthur of legend, but the “real” Arthur, as the leaders of Britain assemble to elect a new supreme king, to lead the defence against the invading Saxons. But when a young woman is brutally murdered on the eve of the meeting, and the finger of blame points towards Merlin, it is imperative to learn the truth as quickly as possible.

Enter Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, one-time military advisor to Arthur, but now a scribe and heavy drinker, the loss of his arm and his wife (not necessarily in that order) leading to his fall from grace. But with many people hoping Arthur will fail, Malgwyn will need all his wits about him…

Why this book? That’s a good place to start. Well, it’s November, so I’m currently running around like a mad Viking playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, so fancied something in a similar vein – it’s a couple of centuries out, but pretty close. But it’s an odd book, and not necessarily in a good way.

You see, this isn’t the Arthur of legend, but it’s not a historical mystery based around the real Arthur either, because, well, there wasn’t one. Not according to most historians anyway, so this is a reimagining of Arthur with all the magic and underwater blacksmiths taken out. A lot of the character names are kept, along with some basic traits, but that’s it.

The descriptive parts of the book are vivid, and the central character of Malgwyn is interesting enough, although it’s hard to feel much sympathy with him. And the plot is very slow. The first half drags a lot – as I said, it paints a nice picture, but all it consists of is Malgwyn talking to people and being told the same thing over and over again, sometimes by the same person.

The biggest problem is the resolution to the mystery, and it’s hard to criticise it without spoiling it, so if you feel like reading this, stop reading now. I’m not going to say who the murderer is, but the metaphor I’m going to give will illustrate my point. So first of all, here’s a picture my Viking escapades – but after that, you have been warned…

Much more fun than this book, unfortunately

Right – suppose I was writing a reimagining of Robin Hood as a murder mystery. Suppose Robin was about to investigate a murder in Loxley, and the suspects were Marian the local fishmonger, Little John the butcher, Tuck the priest, Will Scarlet the tailor and Guy of Gisborne the sinister man who sits in the corner glaring at Arthur at every opportunity. Rule number one – there is one character who I would not make the murderer in a million years. And if I did, then I would certainly add in Mr Sheriff, the… well, sheriff and King John, the local money lender, so there are some alternatives. So, put it this way, in this book, only one of usual Arthurian villains shows up, and, well, you can fill in the rest…

I’m willing to overlook a slow-moving plot when the finale works – but that wasn’t the case here unfortunately. As an slow-paced adventure, some may well enjoy it, but as a mystery, I’m afraid not. A shame, I was looking for a new historical author, but I think I need to look elsewhere…

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