The Fort At River’s Bend: Half a story

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Fort At River’s Bend by Jack Whyte fantasy book reviewsThe Fort At River’s Bend by Jack Whyte

The Fort At River’s Bend is the first half Jack Whyte’s The Sorcerer, which publishers decided to divide into two novels: The Fort At River’s Bend and Metamorphosis. Whyte apparently preferred that they would have been read as one entry.*

When The Fort At River’s Bend begins, our narrator, Caius Merlyn Brittanicus of Camulod, is reaching middle age. He is a warrior, a soldier, and a governor who has lost friends, family, and his wife to treachery and war. Now, he commits his life to raising Arthur Pendragon in safety.

Given that their enemies have already tried to assassinate Arthur, Merlyn has decided to remove the boy from danger and to raise him in secret. Merlyn sails to Ravenglass, a neutral harbor run by King Derek. We last saw King Derek raping Ygraine, Arthur’s mother, after killing Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. But Merlyn and Derek soon become friends and Merlyn chooses to hide at Mediobogdum, or the Fort At River’s Bend. The fort, abandoned by the Romans who built it almost two hundred years before, remains largely intact because of its brilliant construction and because its isolation and elevation kept farmers from using it as a source of building materials. There, Merlyn begins to raise his precocious charge. He maintains a platonic relationship with Shelagh, his best friend’s attractive wife, and ultimately meets and falls in love with a new woman. (Good for him!)

I found the plotting of The Fort At River’s Benda little strange — not much happens — which makes the decision to divide the two novels in two all the more bizarre. There is little characterization here as most of the cast has already been introduced at length in previous novels. Perhaps Merlyn’s two primary internal conflicts are confronting his fear of leprosy and questioning his commitment to celibacy. I expected Arthur to receive a great deal of attention, but Arthur is eight years old, quite brilliant for his age, and he seems like a good kid. In other words, he’s not very interesting. We first meet Arthur in detail as he and Merlyn explore their new fort, but the fort is more compelling, perhaps because Whyte feels the genius of the Roman engineers is less obvious than the genius of young Arthur.

Worse, there are few antagonists here and the most dangerous of them is probably a rabid fox. I spent much of the novel expecting Derek of Ravenglass to turn his coat. After all, we are reminded in detail of how he killed Uther and was raping Arthur’s mother when Merlyn last saw him. However, I did not see any sign that Whyte was going to pursue this thread. There are distant warlords that seem poised to become very real threats in the next novel, but it seems like more of The Fort At River’s Bend takes place in the bathhouse than it does in the medieval Britain. Even the restoration of the fort goes smoothly, perhaps because Whyte has already detailed how to create a colony in Britain in previous novels.

Although The Fort At River’s Bend is the first half of The Sorcerer, it’s the fifth entry in his A Dream of Eagles series (published as The Camulod Chronicles in the United States). Whyte’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend began three generations in advance of Arthur’s, and each entry has focused more on historical developments than it has on action. So it should come as no surprise that more detail is given to the construction of broadswords than using them. Like the fort Merlyn lives in, this novel often feels like a historical sanctuary. Some readers will enjoy Fort simply to feel what medieval life in a fort on a hill above a winding river might be like.

Unfortunately, I did not find these details as novel as they were earlier in the series. Many of the innovations that Publius Varrus had to work through came as a result of very real threats and concerns. Although we are reminded that the Romans have left Britain, the threats of barbarism do not feel very immediate in The Fort At River’s Bend. Perhaps Merlyn chose a location remote enough to raise Arthur in safety but one too remote for a gripping novel. Or perhaps deciding to rob the story of a rising action and climax by dividing the story into two books was a mistake.

The Fort At River’s Bendwill likely strike many readers who see it as a distinct novel as a disappointment while its defenders will remind us that Whyte intended it and its successor, The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis, to be read as one story. Regardless, I’m still looking forward to the next entry.

*I retrieved this information from Wikipedia, but its source is a forum post on Jack Whyte’s website. The person who made it appears to also run Whyte’s Facebook group.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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