Tuesday, 28 September 1999

Victor Canning: The Crimson Chalice (1976)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 339

There seems to be something about the Arthur legend which attracts thriller writers. Best known are probably Mary Stewart's books, but other authors who have tackled the subject include Bernard Cornwell and Victor Canning. Canning's trilogy, beginning with The Crystal Chalice, is less a straight retelling of the legend than a story inspired by it - particularly the Holy Grail elements. In The Crimson Chalice, for example, Arthur and Merlin hardly get a mention. Magic is virtually banished, just occasionally appearing here and there. This mainly makes it serve as a reminder that the setting is Arthurian, rather than being a straight fifth century historical novel.

Young upper class Roman girl Tia (short for Gratia) flees from the destruction of her father's villa by a party of marauding Saxons, when she comes upon the body of Baradoc in the woods. Heir to the chieftainship of a British tribe in the far west, he was taken prisoner by Phoenician traders and sold as a slave. He is also escaping the Saxons, but has been attacked and left for dead by his cousin, the next heir. She nurses him back to health, and they continue together to Aquae Sulis (Bath) and the comparative safety of her uncle's villa there.

The self-deprecating postscript effectively disarms criticism of Canning's style; suffice it to say that some of the more romantic and poetic passages are ill advised.

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