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Bernard Cornwell – Stonehenge

July 5, 2008

85. Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell (2000)

Length: 434 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 27 June 08
Finished: 04 July 08

Summary: Stonehenge provides a fictionalized account of the building of the famous – and mysterious – monument, approximately 4000 years ago. It focuses around three brothers: Lengar, who kills his father and claims the chiefship of the tribe; Camaban, the illegitimate middle child, a crippled and outcast who becomes a powerful sorcerer; and Saban, the youngest, whose life is directed by the whims of his elder brothers, who ultimately becomes responsible for the construction of Stonehenge. For it is meant to be the greatest temple the world has ever seen, a temple to the Sun, to bring him closer to Earth, to end winter, suffering, and death. Yet, to accomplish this immense task, there will be no shortage of war, betrayal, and bloodshed.

Review: This is the first of Bernard Cornwell’s books that I’ve read, and I realize that he’s an immensely popular author, but if this is representative of his style, he’s just not for me. This is in part due to his writing style – the writing feels very distant and mythical, as if he’s transcribing a bardic saga or a long-remembered legend, but it also has the effect of keeping the reader at a distance. However, I think the main reason that I didn’t enjoy this book is due to his storytelling style. If books like The Mists of Avalon get criticized for being too “ovarian”, then Stonehenge surely swings too far the opposite way: it’s one of the most testosterone-y (the new San Francisco treat!) books I’ve ever read. There’s a lot of emphasis on war, and killing, and human sacrifice, and groin-touching, and the details of engineering that went into moving and placing the giant stones, but there’s a dearth of likable characters, in-depth characterization, and believable dialogue, and the story is slow and never really involves the reader (at least this reader). It picked up a bit in the last 100 pages, but by that time, I couldn’t be bothered to care. The most interesting thing to me was the historical note, in which Cornwell discusses which elements of his story are based on the archaeological record… but I could have read a non-fiction book about Stonehenge for that. I can’t help feeling like there was an interesting story there, but I would rather it had been written by someone like Guy Gavriel Kay who understands complex characterization and storytelling. 2 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Not nearly as good as I wanted it to be. If you’re a fan of Cornwell’s style, it might be better, but it’s not for me.

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First Line: The gods talk by signs.


  • p. 74: “Almost as many complained of pain in their joints, a fierce pain that doubled it over and made it hard for a man to till a field or a woman to grind a quern stone, and if the pain was truly crippling, Sannas would lay the sufferer between two fires, then take a newly chipped flint knife and drag it across the painful joint.” – a primitive, hand-operated mill for grinding grain.
  • p. 83: “A rustle of leaves made Saban peer down, fearing discovery, but all he saw was a fox carrying a dabchick in its jaws.” – any of various small grebes, esp. the little grebe.
  • p. 102: “Saban peered down the hole and saw that the stone was catching on the upright face of rubbly chalk.” – made or consisting of rubble. (Oh, that’s obvious in retrospect. Oops.)
  • p. 356: “He thought about that, then reached out and touched a deerskin bag in which he kept Lydda’s flensed bones.” – to strip off (blubber or skin).
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Johanna permalink
    November 1, 2008 11:17 am

    I was ambivalent about buying the novel; but now, you’ve made up my mind. It’s a no go. Thanks!

  2. March 13, 2009 11:58 am

    Thank you for making me feel less alone about this novel. I could not finish it, myself, and I was particularly struck with how many times the concept of grabbing one’s (or someone else’s) groin came into play. That was one big reason I quit.

  3. Cam permalink
    April 1, 2009 9:31 pm

    To me, Berard Cornwell is the epitome of historical fiction authors. I have loved all of his books, and this is no exception. I don’t feel that the reader is kept at a distance. I was enthralled by the complex web of lies and deceit found in the novel. I would highly reccomend reading Stonehenge: you won’t be disappointed.


  1. Book Review: Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell (2/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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