I have been enchanted with the Arthurian Legend since reading the excellent series by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day. Hers was a more "traditional" take on the legend. That being the one we are all familiar with or what some would call the "romanticized" version. The Skystone takes a different look at the legend and starts many years before Aurthur is even born. The book follows the life of a Roman soldier named Publius Varrus who is fated to befriend and follow a man named Gaius Brittanicus in Roman occupied England.
The book unfolds in a time when the Roman Empire is imploding from the pressures of outside forces and internal corruption. An invasion by heretofore unorganized barbarians leaves the Romans who are occupying England in disarray. They are eventually able to beat back the horde and regain control, but not to a point that they previously were to maintain. Gaius Brittanicus is a man of vision and can see that the supposedly eternal Roman Empire is on its last legs. He has been planning for this eventuality for some time and has set up a small barony of his own using his wealth that his family has attained over the years. At the end of the book, it is plain to see that he has been right and the fateful day is soon to be at hand. He has gathered his friends and family to an idllyc place I am assuming will be come to be known as Camulod or "Camelot". Having been partially crippled in an ambush, Publius Varrus has taken up his grandfather's profession of blacksmith along with his secret of smithing something they come to call a Skystone.
The tale is told from the perspective of Publius Varrus for the entire narrative. We see events unfold through his eyes and the filter of his perceptions. Whyte does an admirable job of portraying life in 4th Century Great Britain through the eyes of a Roman soldier. The novel isn't awash with flowery prose or stilting descriptions of the countryside and people, but one gets the sense of actually being there in that time. One wouldn't be inclined to call Whyte a great writer, but he keeps the reader wanting more by deftly lulling one into the everyday happenings of the main character then unleashing an event that changes everything. This is a lot like life works. We go about our daily routines oblivious to a life changing event that is just around the corner. Then we scramble to deal with the consequences.
This is an Historical Novel more than a fantasy. You won't find magic and wizards or strange creatures. You will find plenty of rousing action and intrigue. I thoroughly enjoyed this book even though I felt that many of the relationships between characters were taken for granted and not developed nearly enough. I can forgive this fact a bit because the narrator is relaying events that happened many years before. Thus, I wouldn't expect him to remember the nuances of every relationship. At times, the main character's reasons for doing things seems a little forced too. He develops a hatred for a family enemy of Brittanicus rather quickly in my view, but I can't say I wouldn't have reacted the same way. By the end of the book it is clear that this man is going to be the one who forges Excalibur. How he got to that point is very interesting and entertaining.
If you are looking for a good escapist novel with an historical vein then I would highly suggest you read this book. I felt myself transported to this time period and I genuinely cared what happened to the main characters.