The second volume in the prolific Cornwell's robust Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, 1996), an ambitious embroidering of the saga of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Narrated by Derfel, a Saxon slave boy who has risen to become a great warrior and one of Arthur's closest friends, this next in the series follows their continuing struggle to unify a Britain composed of small, quarrelling kingdoms, and to rally its people against the threat posed by the land-hungry Saxons and their allies, the fanatical Christians. Cornwell, best known for his lengthy series of historical novels about a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars (Sharpe's Battle, 1995, etc.), writes more gripping battle scenes than any other contemporary author, and he mixes those bloody clashes here with a sharp, grim portrait of a land racked by contending religions (on one side Merlin's brand of Celtic paganism, on the other a variety of old Roman beliefs and the new, fiercely intolerant Christians), and of Arthur, a great hero anxious only to unite the kingdom and retire, with his wife Guinevere, to some quiet corner. As this installment ends, a sadder, wiser Arthur, betrayed by Lancelot and by Guinevere, reluctantly accepts that only he can rule, and perhaps save, Britain. Rousing, persuasive entertainment.