Due to my continuing interest in fictional creations of Arthur’s descendants, I was very excited when I heard about David Pilling’s new book Caesar’s Sword, Book One: The Red Death. This book offers a new take on Arthur’s descendants, resurrecting the overlooked son of Arthur named Amhar, who in the Historia Brittonum, is listed as Arthur’s son whom he slew, and who may have been the source for Mordred later being treated as Arthur’s son.
In Pilling’s version, Amhar decides to side with the traitor Mordred against his father, Arthur. When Arthur learns of Amhar’s treachery, he fights Amhar and slays him prior to the Battle of Camlann. But that’s just the beginning of this book. Amhar has a son named Coel, Arthur’s grandson, and it is Coel who is the main character of Caesar’s Sword.
Coel and his mother fear that Arthur will be angry with them so they flee Britain. But a few days later, Arthur dies at Camlann and Coel and his mother’s existence is basically forgotten in Britain, which is caught up in battles between its kings.
Coel and his mother, Eliffer, are accompanied in their flight by Owain, one of Arthur’s knights. Owain has retrieved Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, which was knocked from his hand during his battle with Amhar. Owain keeps the sword for Coel until he is old enough to wield it. The sword is said to have belonged to Julius Caesar and to have been forged by a god, so Coel treasures it.
Coel, Owain, and Eliffer seek refuge at the French court, but after Owain dies fighting for the French king, Coel and Eliffer decide to travel to Constantinople. They make a long journey, during which Eliffer tells Coel all about his grandfather, Arthur.
So far, so good, but it is when Coel reaches Constantinople that the story really took off for me since I have long been fascinated by the history of the Byzantine Empire, and the rest of the novel covers much of the reign of the Emperor Justinian, the greatest of all the emperors. I won’t give away all the plot here, but it is sufficient to say that Coel will have Caledfwlch stolen from him and he will set out on a quest to win it back. In the process, he will find himself in slavery, working in the Hippodrome’s Circus, and making an enemy of a harlot who ends up becoming an empress and seeking revenge on him.
While the Arthurian elements are strongest in the novel’s beginning, David Pilling brings back the significance of Arthur at the end of the novel. Coel finds himself having to fight his own sense of dishonor in having been Amhar’s son, and he feels his grandfather is watching over him, perhaps displeased with him, and he has to come to realize he is his own man and not his father. How he comes to this realization I’ll leave for readers to enjoy discovering themselves.
Pilling writes smooth, clear prose that moves the story along. The plot is not overly tight, but it never lags, as the reader follows Coel through his many experiences. Pilling plans to continue the story, and I am curious to know what will happen next. Perhaps Coel will return to Britain or father more descendants of King Arthur.
Pilling is an extremely prolific author of historical fiction. He has written several other novels set in English history and about other legends, such as Robin Hood, but Caesar’s Sword is, I believe, his only Arthurian novel to date. You can find out more about Pilling and his books at www.DavidPillingAuthor.com
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com