Just finished it. I thought it was absolutely phenomenal. I have an issue with how quickly he ended it though, it seems very out of keeping. Everything else in Derfel's life is described extensively, and by having the story be from Derfel's POV and ending it with the last battle at Camlann, he leaves out so much story which could easily have fitted into an epilogue. Were I his editor I would at least have advised to spend some time on tying that up properly. Too many questions unanswered. What happens to Guinevere, Galahad, Gwydre and the others on the boat for instance? Does Derfel ever meet them again? Where does he go to live with Ceinwyn and how many more years are they given? I understand that he wants to keep Arthur's final fate unknown, even though we can deduce from his never coming back that he did die, but the final chapter just doesn't seem right in how fast Cornwell goes about tying things up.
Other than that niggle about the unsatisfying ending, nothing but praise. Well almost. I thought the characterization was great, particulary for the secondary characters. He does a great job of building a big cast of characters in a way few authors can. Especially the group of Arthur's companions such as Sagramor, Culhwch, Galahad, Tristan. Derfel is the star of the show in this series rather than Arthur, whose portrayal I am ambivalent about. The same applies to Merlin, who has been portrayed better elsewhere ( Stewart). Merlin to me was too powerless, too vulgar. I understand he went for the Dark Merlin/Mad Merlin take but I don't think it fully worked, he is too diminished for my taste. Nimue was interesting, as was Guinevere. So many good enemies as well, Lancelot, the Saxons, Amhar and Loholt, Mordred, Nimue, the vicious twins Dinas and Lavaine that killed his daughter, so many weak men set off against strong ones, the story of Tristan and Iseult, the character of Gawain gets a completely different treatment,a great sense of melancholy for a lost reign. Wonderful how Cornwell gives us the story through the eyes of a man writing at the end of his life, excellent device. Actually a great romance between Derfel and Ceinwyn as well, touching.
His portrayal of magic in the story seems to shift at the end of the third book from how it has been portrayed up until that late point in the story however, and I found that quaint. After two and a half book of pretty much no magic and alternate explanations for everything that could be construed as magical, he does seem to want to make it plain at the end that there is some real magic being done.
Lancelot: Yes, one-dimensional. He's a total tool, bereft of good qualities, unlike Galahad who is his opposite and who Derfel calls his best friend.
The Saxons: not villains in the sense that they are just like the Britons, trying to gain land so continious flow of Saxons coming to the British shores can be accomodated. And enemy yes, but it depends on the POV. Nimue, the druid twins, Lancelot etc are more clearly defined as villains. Not to mention the guy that tries to kill Derfel so shcokingly at the Isle of the Dead.
Strange how Nimue turned out. From Merlin's best friend in youth to ally in maturity to cruel enemy at the end. Mordred was a truly terrible human being, rotten even as a boy.
Merlin's portrayal leaves too much to be desired here. As does Arthur's, who is lead around the nose too much by Guinevere in the first two books, something which is corrected in book 3. He is very human, but for me just a bit much and too flawed. Some of his decisions were just poor and as Derfel said, poor for all to see but Arthur.
Loved the companions. The bachelor Galahad, Christian knight of great prowess, coarse Culhwch, built like a bull, Derfel himsel with his marvellous life story, Sagramor the black demon. Tristan was a great character as was the brutal Lord Owain in book 1, I was sad to see him killed. Same for Aelle, Derfel's father.
In the end, a superb portrayal of Arthurian legends. The only Arthurian series that rivals it is the vastly different Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart. I've still yet to read Sword at Sunset though, which has no Merlin as I understand it. He puts a different hat on almost every character, and on many known events. He has great storytelling flair and displays great characterization abilities. He shows us battles, passion, romance and makes the Arthur story new to those had become tired of it.