The Killing Way by Tony Hays is marked “an Arthurian mystery” on the front cover, a brilliant concept that immediately drew my attention. More of a historical mystery than a fantasy — though with Druidic magic still at the forefront of everyone’s minds — The Killing Way begins the story of Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, Arthur’s most trusted friend. Malgwyn reluctantly becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving all of Arthur’s court and a dangerous plot to overthrow the king.
Well researched and original
Tony Hays clearly knows his stuff; the Author’s Note at the end of the book offers a clear explanation of all Hays’ choices concerning the historical context. In the book proper, hardly a paragraph goes by where some new Roman, British or Saxon habit isn’t introduced, but Hays could have provided these historical tidbits more naturally. Malgwyn’s first-person narration frequently pauses in the middle of conversation to give the reader an explanation of one thing or another, but many of those explanations were unnecessary given the helpful context. I wonder whether Hays fell prey to the “Look at all the research I’ve done!” form of over-sharing that is common to fantasy and historical fiction writers alike.
That said, Hays’s vision of Arthur is unique and refreshing. There is no Camelot, only a grim, wartorn Britannia on the brink of collapse. The vicious murder of a servant girl casts a critical light on the hypocrisy of knighthood, and, for that matter, the knights themselves are cruel and far from perfect. Mixing murder mysteries and Arthurian romance is an unusual choice, but The Killing Way shows that it can be done.
Familiar characters and some great new ones
Later additions to the Arthurian myth such as Lancelot and Galahad aren’t found in The Killing Way, but Hays made the happy decision to include Guinevere, Merlin, Kay and a host of others you’ll recognize if you’re familiar with the legend. By the time the story starts, Merlin is a forgetful old man whose magic, if he ever had any, seems pretty well vanished. Guinevere is a beautiful nun whose relationship with Arthur has shamed her in the face of everyone at court and prevents Arthur from ever marrying her. Kay is a lovable knight whose personal connection to the murder at the novel’s heart makes The Killing Way more than an impersonal mystery, but an important and emotional journey to find closure.
The best character of all, of course, is Malgwyn himself, and you won’t find him in any traditional Arthurian lore. His wife butchered by the Saxons, his arm lopped off in battle afterwards, Malgwyn is a bitter man soaked in alcohol whose most fervent wish is that Arthur had just let him die on the field instead of bringing him to safety. Malgwyn is not a perfect character, though, and in a few scenes he’s downright annoying. His worst character trait is his headlong descent into damp sentimentality any time he thinks on his daughter, and his few attempts at sarcastic humor leave a lot wanting. But Malgwyn is the grim and realistic foil to Arthur’s idealism and self-righteousness, and I look forward to seeing how the men’s relationship develops.
Stiff, unnatural prose
Unfortunately, The Killing Way has a serious flaw: unwieldy, pompous prose and dialogue. The novel’s blurb says that Malgwyn “looks more like a CSI investigator than a scholarly Brother Cadfael,” but Malgwyn’s narration isn’t nearly as fast-paced, funny, or human as a CSI show — and for those of you who’ve seen CSI, you know that’s a pretty damning criticism of the book. Hays has only to pick up any high fantasy novel to see that fiction set in the Dark Ages need not adopt the same regal formality of the time period. And if one does choose to use regal formality and pseudo-medieval sentence phrasing, it had better be downright beautiful — but Hays fails on that score, too.
And what about the mystery?
For a book that calls itself an “Arthurian mystery,” the mystery side of things is only so-so. It’s clear from the start that the culprit is one of Arthur’s political enemies, and it doesn’t seem to matter which one of those enemies it is. The uncomplicated mystery didn’t bother me too much, though, since I found the real story was Malgwyn’s slow redemption and growing relationship with his family.
Why should you read this book?
Do you love Arthurian legend? Then you’ve got to read this book. Even though the writing is stiff, the concept and characters are still worth sinking your teeth into — if only to see whether you’ll want to continue the series. But if you don’t share my love for the Matter of Britain, I think there are better ways to spend your time.