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Book Review: The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb

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When I picked up the The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, I expected to read about King Arthur or Arthur the Pendragon and his adventures. Needless to say, I was surprised when this book was nothing about the famous king. Instead it follows the adventures of a young historian, János Bátky, after befriending the Early of Gwynedd, an eccentric old man. The Earl comes from a powerful line of people known as the Pendragons. The family’s history is a long and complex one, but ultimately it is a family known for dabbling in mysticism and the occult. Needless to say, the family line is shrouded in a cloud of mystery.

János receives an invitation to the Pendragon Castle for the summer to further his studies, particularly those relating to the family. What was supposed to be an uneventful, researched-filled time turned into sleepless nights, midnight riders, deaths, attempted deaths, and gigantic apparitions that happen to be the butler. In actuality everything begins with the fact that someone’s attempting to take the Earl’s life. At the exact same time, a creature starts stalking the village at night, and it is believed to be the midnight rider or great, great grandfather come back from the grave. 

Other emotions ensue as well as a chase after an elusive woman, who holds the Earl's heart, and seems to be behind these failed assassinations. János along with the Earl’s nephew and an old friend set out to try to save the uncle and find out the reason behind all this. Every step of the way they are blessed with obscure events and endless coincidences.

The Pendragon Legend is surprisingly lighthearted and Szerb has a wonderful gift of subtle English humor, despite the fact that he is Hungarian. He creates János to be the anti-hero in the novel and oxymoronically intertwines the backdrops of modern and old ways with each other. His characters range from the flamboyant to the extremely stoic, and are always blown out of proportion. The aspect of the novel that I loved the most was the narration. Delivered in a very sophisticated, proper, and dry, albeit at times sarcastic, way, sometimes I did a double take in realization that, yes indeed, the author did write that – like when the reader first meets the butler and he's depicted as an ancient medieval figure.

It has been a while since I've read a good, fun book. Indeed, The Pendragon Legend seems like one of those that should be read outside in the sun, where you are able to laugh out loud while passersby look at you funny.

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