Book Review: Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell (2/5)

28 Apr

My mom doesn’t recommend books to me often so when she does, I take them seriously. She recommended this one to me after I read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth which I really enjoyed. I guess this is in a similar strain as Pillars, but I felt it was really lacking and I wouldn’t consider the two comparable.

Cover image via

Cover image via

Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell

Summary from Goodreads:

Four thousand years ago, a stranger’s death at the Old Temple of Ratharryn-and his ominous “gift” of gold-precipitates the building of what for centuries to come will be known as one of mankind’s most singular and remarkable achievements. Bernard Cornwell’s epic novel Stonehenge catapults us into a powerful and vibrant world of ritual and sacrifice at once timeless and wholly original-a tale of patricide, betrayal, and murder; of bloody brotherly rivalry: and of the never-ending quest for power, wealth, and spiritual fulfillment.

Three brothers-deadly rivals-are uneasily united in their quest to create a temple to their gods. There is Lengar, the eldest, a ruthless warrior intent on replacing his father as chief of the tribe of Ratharryn; Camaban, his bastard brother, a sorcerer whose religious fervor inspires the plan for Stonehenge; and Saban, the youngest, through whose expertise the temple will finally be completed. Divided by blood but united-precariously-by a shared vision, the brothers begin erecting their mighty ring of granite, aligning towering stones to the movement of the heavenly bodies, and raising arches to appease and unite their gods. Caught between the zealousness of his ambitious brothers, Saban becomes the true leader of his people, a peacemaker who will live to see the temple built in the name of salvation and regeneration.

The summary makes it sound like the book focuses on building Stonehenge but, in fact, Stonehenge doesn’t appear until late in the novel. I was listening to the audiobook which totaled 17 hours and Stonehenge wasn’t even engineered until about 13 hours into that. The first 13 hours dealt with other temples, Gods, side characters, and minimal character development. I felt like most of it could have been cut. There were so many characters that I had a lot of them confused soon after they were introduced. Whereas Pillars never seemed to get too off course, I felt this story was derailed from the start and I wish it had been a little more focused.

Cornwall did a great job of creating an ancient culture with little historical record on which to base his facts. The extensive author’s note at the end described the little he did have to go off of but showed how much of what he created was from his own imagination. I think he created some great characters and Gods which were relatable today.

Saban was my favorite character because he seemed to be the only one with any sense. Lengar was a jerk, Camaban was power-hungry, and Saban’s women were zealots who blindly followed Camaban. It was easy to sympathize with him because as a reader I shared his frustrations with the other characters. Saban was obviously a very smart man and it was easy to like him.

Bernard Cornwell Image via the Daily Mail

Bernard Cornwell
Image via the Daily Mail

I liked when they were finally building Stonehenge. There was no more dragging of stone or wars over where the stone could be moved or visions from priests or anything else to get in the way of the story. I wish the construction had been the focus of the book. I thought the engineering that Saban had to follow to get the structures to stand was well described and his construction techniques were really interesting to me.

I thought the portion of Saban’s life that he spent as a slave was very unnecessary. He rose again to a position of power and I didn’t think he grew from the experience of being a slave. If the point of it was to drive a rift between him and Lengar, I didn’t think it was necessary. The two were already on rough terms. The first half of the novel was too much character building for me because none of the characters grew during the time, only revealed their personalities to the reader.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Frederick Davidson. I was not a fan of the narration. I thought he was very monotonous and I had to turn the book off sometimes while driving to stay awake. The voice he used for some characters was really grating on my ears, particularly Sanas and some of the older men.

The only message I can gather from this is a warning about blindly following anything. Many of the characters blindly followed Camaban and Orena who say they are receiving messages from the Gods though those messages frequently change and often benefit them personally. Many of those followers meet tragic ends. Other than that, I found this book merely entertaining and not teaching very much.

Writer’s Takeaway: Kill your darlings. I’m sure it’s as hard for a seasoned writer as it is for me, but a lot of this book could have been cut.

I found it rambling and the comparison to Ken Follett hurt it in my mind. Two out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Bernard Cornwell – Stonehenge | Firefly’s Book Blog
Stonehenge (by Bernard Cornwell: Fiction) c. 1999 | Wandering Through The Stacks

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