Taliesin by Stephen R. Lawhead: C+

From the back cover:
It was a time of legend, when the last shadows of the mighty Roman conqueror faded from the captured Isle of Britain. While across a vast sea, bloody war shattered a peace that had flourished for two thousand years in the doomed kingdom of Atlantis.

Taliesin is the remarkable adventure of Charis, the Atlantean princess who escaped the terrible devastation of her homeland, and of the fabled seer and druid prince Taliesin, singer at the dawn of the age. It is the story of an incomparable love that joined two worlds amid the fires of chaos, and spawned the miracles of Merlin… and Arthur the king.

Oh man, I am old. I have owned this book—the whole of Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, in fact—for at least twenty years. And yes, it has taken me that long to get around to reading it. Given that I’ve held onto this book for a couple of decades now, I really did want to like it, but I unfortunately found it rather boring.

In the beginning, the narrative alternates between Wales, where an unlucky prince named Elphin finds the babe Taliesin (pronounced Tallyéssin) in a salmon weir and raises him as his own, and Atlantis, where Princess Charis loses her mother in the opening skirmish of a war and spends seven years dancing in a bull ring until the prophecy of Atlantis’ doom comes true. Only a few ships’ worth of Atlanteans are saved, and by the time they claim a bit of Britain for themselves, Taliesin has become a respected bard and druid. (Note: while much is made regarding the beauty of Taliesin’s singing voice, no specifics are offered—I’m not even sure whether its register is specified—so it’s impossible to imagine what it sounds like.)

It takes a very, very long time for Taliesin and Charis to meet. Theirs is a destined love, which means they love each other on first sight and decide to get married pretty quickly. Oh, Charis mounts a token resistance because she knows her father will never agree to her marrying Taliesin, whom he regards as a barbarian, but fairly quickly decides to go through with it regardless of his wishes. Although we are told often that they love each other, I’m not exactly sure why they do. We are told that they talk often, but dialogue between them is actually rather sparse. Rather than two people in love, they’re treated more like pawns whose purpose is to beget Merlin. The same could be said for many characters in Arthurian legend, but in a 486-page book, I don’t think expecting more is unreasonable.

Near the end, Taliesin goes gaga for Jesus and begins talking up the “Savior God” everywhere he goes. It’s at this point that I understand why a quote on the back cover compares Lawhead to C. S. Lewis. Christianity undeniably plays a significant part in Arthurian legend—that whole Holy Grail business, for instance—but turning Taliesin into God’s fervent mouthpiece makes him less interesting.

In the end, despite my complaints, I intend to continue with the series. Perhaps as I encounter more characters with whom I’m familiar, I’ll begin to enjoy it more. And perhaps Merlin will not be as prone to religious zealotry as his father. Let us hope.

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  1. I never bought these books, but I remember seeing them in the bookstore almost every time I went, and thinking ‘hmm’. But even though I’m actually quite fond of Arthurian stuff, I never was compelled to make a purchase.

    This cover is different from the one I always saw, though. The ones I remember have a big head.

    • I am pretty sure that I chanced upon volumes 1-4 in a used-book store and was weak against their power.

      To be honest, my copy is the one with the big head, but this one is so much prettier.

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