Of how he was the lord of the Britons and became the…er…Rigotamos. Of his epic conflict on the battlefield…I mean, uhm, the courts…of the…er…consilium. Of his forbidden love with the slutty nun, Guinevere. And of how his trusted aide, the one-armed Malgwyn, saved him from political peril by deciphering…
No, hold on a moment, that’s not the story of King Arthur at all.
It is, however, the story of The Beloved Dead. Tony Hays composes a completely alternate portrait to the legend of King Arthur, painting it from hues mixed from the history books. He sets it in the likely era of a historical Arthur, binds it together with the social strife of the time and casts its characters from persona of the period.
He does not give two shits about how Sir Thomas Mallory’s fantastical tapestry of romantic tradition depicts your favorite heroes, so keep your tomes on the shelf, English Majors. Tony Hays cares not for T.H. White’s mystical retelling of Arthurian lore that became a childhood classic. He is here to build his own world, conveyed through the first-person perspective of Malgwyn, a dour counselor in Arthur’s court, and you will get with the times as he sees them or you can leave.
The story of The Beloved Dead is, therefore, only dubiously Arthurian. Forget familiarity and to the Devil with your romance lore. It is also only dubiously a mystery.
Mystery lies in the heart of the plot, but that heart beats at the rate of a blue whale. Malgwyn spends most of the book being extremely cranky about Arthur refusing to marry the fallen nun, Guinevere, and occasionally dabbles in discovering who is behind the brutal slayings of various nubile girls. Yes, the killings are gruesome. They also don’t appear until page 55 of this 389-page book.
The rest of the book deals with Arthur’s frustrations with the conservative and clannish lords of the consilium, a governing body, vestigial from Roman rule. Arthur loves Guinevere, but Guinevere’s got a bit of a bad rep, and so Arthur feels compelled to marry a young lady of political advantage. Malgwyn gnashes his teeth every chapter about how Arthur should tell them to fuck off. Every time, Arthur or a supporting cast character tell Malgwyn to chill out. So it goes.
The only real mystery is whether the mystery of the brutalized girls really matters. It chugs along, secondary in significance to the characters, until the characters can’t ignore it anymore. Then they settle it neatly. The element of a twist is almost entirely absent, as the sole red herring served to the reader is far, far too fishy to be taken seriously.
Tony Hays’ Beloved Dead is, in essence, a historical fiction. He smothers you in scads of facts. You get pages on the history of various settlements, mounds and fading Roman customs. You get three maps that, while highly detailed and anthropologically intriguing, serve no real purpose to the plot at all. And, as I noted, you get a narrative occasionally decorated with an Arthurian term or two, but that otherwise trades the familiar cast for characters with names like Aircol and Talorc.
If the history of the Britons is your cup of tea, quaff deep, dear reader. This is a rare feeding frenzy of facts about that esoteric time, featuring figures that echo that most distinctly British tradition—King Arthur. Your lust for period politics will not be disappointed, as the characters are perpetually fussy about some social matter or another.
If, however, you expect something Arthurian or, say, mysterious from The Beloved Dead, don’t bother. Any veteran mystery reader will nail the culprit before the first body is cool. Seeing them brought to justice will demand a 300-page slog through Rigotamoses and consiliums and random sorties with the Scotti. There is only the faintest trace of the Arthurian tradition here. No white hind, no Excalibur, not even a green knight. Expect the deeds that are the flesh and bone of Arthurian drama—namely, coarse and beardy men hitting each other with sharp pieces of metal—and you will be sorely disappointed.
The only Arthurian mystery element to The Beloved Dead by Tony Hays is where the legendry of King Arthur is. Spoiler alert: It ain’t here.