“Pendragon” is, so far, by far my favourite book in the Cycle. Why this is, though, is actually interesting, and follows on from my discussion with Malcolm in some of the comments.
See, the most important things to me in a work are the plot and the characters. If I like the characters, I can put up with a weaker plot (a la “Read or Die”), and if the plot is good I can at least kinda put up with characters I don’t care much for, as long as it isn’t overdone. But the main reason that I didn’t like “Farscape” all that much is because I didn’t like any of the characters except for Aeryn, and the main reason that I didn’t like the revamped “Battlestar Galactica” all that much is that, again, I didn’t like most of the characters, especially the ones the shows focused on. In some sense, if there’s an anchor character or two that I like, I can put up with it, but if there isn’t I lose interest quite quickly.
On the other hand, I want an overarching plot that carries across the work; in short, I love stories and want the work to tell one (or, as is the case with ” X-Men: The Next Dimension”, allows me to tell my own story with its mechanics, which is generally much more fun but rarely, rarely happens. “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, as a series, probably does this the best). I’m not all that interested in a collection of vignettes about a character or set of characters without an overarching plot tying it all together into a story. The plot doesn’t have to be particularly good, but it ought to be there. One of the reasons I like Mass Effect 3 better than Mass Effect 2 in terms of the story is that, well, ME3 actually has one despite the massive flaws in it. ME2’s story, as I’ve commented before, is just there to get you to the next set of character interactions. While I understand the flaws in ME3, they didn’t bother me as much because at least there’s a plot there to experience.
“Taliesin” didn’t work that well for me because I didn’t care for Charis as a character, and the structure of the book was a set of vignettes tying into but not really, in my opinion, telling a full-fledged story. “Merlin” worked better, but the plot was still, to me, a bunch of vignettes developing the character, but having the legends to fall back on allowed me to insert them into an existing story, which worked better. “Arthur” worked even better with this, and so was definitely quite enjoyable.
But “Pendragon” has an overarching story — the Vandali invasion — and is told from the perspective of a character that I like. I especially enjoy the difference between his internal monologue and the thoughts of others and the legends about Merlin, Merlin here is no where near as sure of himself as others and the legends think. The overall story is good, and most of the events relate to it. I agree that the battles are the weakest parts of the book — the climactic swordfight between Arthur and Amilcar, especially, reads a lot like a “I want to present a draining and detailed swordfight, but don’t really know how to do that, so let me stretch it out over days and only highlight some key character interactions and the climactic scene, and for the rest … eh, they’ll be cautious with each other!” — but because I know their importance I’m willing to accept that; what happens in them is important and they are important, so I’m interested, in some sense, in their details. The link to the plot, then, allows me to overlook their deficiencies in a way that a more vignette approach didn’t.
I’m currently reading “Grail”, and then it’ll be back to the final book of “Arthur” and my final thoughts on the series as a whole.