So, I finished reading “Aneirin” — a couple of weeks ago, actually, right after I finished “Grail” — and so have finished the entire Pendragon Cycle. First, let me talk a bit about “Aneirin”.
As promised by Malcolm in the comments … the last book in “Arthur” really does feel rushed. From the start, they bring back Morgian only to have her unceremoniously killed off to motivate Medraut. This is far to rushed to deal with someone who is purportedly a major protagonist. If you hadn’t read “Grail” before this, it’s an ignoble end to a major antagonist … or, at least, one who was talked up as such. If you have read “Grail” first, it’s even worse, as she is important there and utterly unimportant in this book. So it starts off rather poorly, and with little set-up to Medraut it’s nothing more than a motivation for him to start off all of the events.
The book, then, proceeds at this pace throughout, leaving little room for development and coming across as trying to get the events out before the book has to end. That being said, the ending is great. The sacrifice of Llenlleawg does take on more meaning given “Grail”, and the ending ties up the story in a way consistent with the mythos and with the story Lawhead was trying to tell. I agree with Malcom that another book showing how things moved from “Grail” to here would be great, showing us how Morgian’s power was broken for her to be captured, how Medraut worked his way in, and how Gwalchmai survived to fight in the final battle.
Now, on the series as a whole:
The series is, to my mind, a rather odd duck. If your first exposure to the Arthurian Mythos is through this series, I think you’d be disappointed with it. It seems to rely too much on people knowing and liking the legends — and winks too much at the camera about that — for someone who doesn’t have that background to really get into it and not get completely lost. But it doesn’t work as a replacement for the legends either. In fact, the biggest impact it had on me was to push me to dig up my books of the legends and re-read them, and doing that both added to them and added to my enjoyment of the series itself. Thus, it seems to me that this series is best for those who are fans of and know lots about the Arthurian Mythos, but who aren’t looking to just relive and re-read the legends.
I also think that the series is really hurt by its focus on the first-person narrative. There are two major issues with that. The first is that if the viewpoint character is a relatively minor part of at least some of the events, major things get missed. “Aneirin” has the most problems with this, for example with the capture and execution of Morgian. The other issue is that some of the individual stories work best from multiple perspectives, which Lawhead often can’t pull off. “Grail” is the biggest example of this. Given this and the fact that if you find the narrator uninteresting you may not care about the story at all (hence where knowing the legends helps as it gives you a connection to the events, at least). It just seems to me that the series spends a lot of its time struggling against the constraints of the narrative form and ends up hurting itself for trying. But that’s probably more something personal rather than a real criticism of the work. That being said, I just re-read the first “Amber” series, which is first-person, and didn’t have the same sort of problems as I had with the Pendragon Cycle.
At the end of the day, though, I enjoyed it. It was worth getting and worth taking the time to read, and I’ll likely read it again at some point. It won’t replace the legends for me — I enjoy reading those much more — but it’s a good supplement to them, in a more historical style. I recommend reading it if you fall into that range of “Knows and likes Arthurian Legend, but isn’t looking for something to replace the legendary tales”, like I do.