Well, I would love to say I enjoyed this book, and I did, in the beginning. It was very well-written, and Mercedes Lackey certainly did her part in pe...moreWell, I would love to say I enjoyed this book, and I did, in the beginning. It was very well-written, and Mercedes Lackey certainly did her part in performing a cursory overview of the old ways, including adding parts from the Mabinogion and the Welsh triads, and even a bit from Gildas' De Excidio and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Brittaniae. She did a good job in providing a very broad strokes overview of the Arthurian legend, and from a very different perspective. I also appreciated the fact that she tried to keep the story very much a Welsh/Briton one, without a lot of continental (i.e., French or German) overtones, which is, admittedly, hard to do with an Arthurian work. When I started, I couldn't wait to have some free time so I could get back to the book, and that hasn't happened to me since reading Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy a decade ago.
The first two parts of Gwenhyfar ("Princess" and "Warrior") were captivating and I found myself thinking that out of all the Arthurian novels I'd read, I've finally found a Gwenhyfar that I actually liked, from the beginning. Partway through Warrior however, something happened: Lancelot showed up (or in this book's case, Lancelin) and what had started out as a narrative about a strong, independent female, one who thought for herself and fought for herself, devolved into another Guenevere-Arthur-Lancelot triangle.
Don't get me wrong. I concentrated on Arthurian lit in grad school. I get it: you can't have a story about Gwen without going there, short of leaving Lancelot out of the story (which is entirely possible by the way, since Lancelot is a medieval French construct and was never part of the original Welsh/Briton Arthurian mythos). And if handled properly, a Lancelot-Gwen pairing wouldn't be all that bad. But if you're going to go there, I wish authors would try a little harder not to make it quite so obvious or quite so...saccharine. And I think that's what frustrated me about this: Mercedes Lackey spent 2/3 of the book building up her vision of a strong, self-aware, self-sufficient Gwen, who literally transformed herself into her name, the White Spirit. How independent, how gifted, how capable and wise she was, and how much she lusted after her own freedom and being able to do what she wanted to, on her own terms, while staying true to her duty as a daughter, a sister, a warrior and a follower of the old ways. And yet, when all was said and done, when she first laid eyes on Lance, something changed her. Maybe that was always the point: love changes you enough to make you do things, even things that you would have thought were anathema, at one point in your life. And if that really were the case, then Lackey succeeded. The problem is, I don't buy it. And this could just be me being obstinate, but I don't buy it specifically because she spent over 200 pages convincing me of how strong a woman Gwen was and that all the sacrifices she made to become who she was, was so that she could be an independent, respected woman in a man's world. While she had her weaknesses and insecurities like everyone else, it just seemed so very out of character for her to turn into a googly-eyed, love-struck shadow of herself. It was too jarring, for me (others may strongly disagree and that's okay!).
And I also understand that this was Gwen's story; it wasn't another story about Arthur. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in Lackey's work, that would even make you want to know -- much less like -- Arthur. Oh, he was always there, in the background, as a person of interest, someone far away yet indirectly connected with everything else going on in the main narrative. You couldn't forget about him and you knew that at some point, he would be brought in and would be an integral part of the main story. And this finally happened in the third part, but again, he was written as if he were on a pedestal; someone who glamored others to see him as a shining example, but someone also out of reach, cold, very two-dimensional, given only to duty. Part of me wishes that she had written him in such a way that would have made him more alive, someone who was flawed, imperfect, with redeeming qualities, so that you could see what was so great about him and why, nearly 1600 years later, people are still writing about him, about his wife, about his deeds, and positing over why he's such a larger-than-life figure, if he even ever existed.
After all, the Arthurian literary corpus spans over a thousand years, and has roots not only in Great Britain but on the continent as well. From the medieval period onwards, each generation that produced Arthurian literature had a specific reason for generating a new version of the legend. In each of these adaptations, the character of Arthur himself changed, depending on what the author intended, or, more than likely, on what the author’s patron had in mind for the retelling. The literary Arthur has appeared in many guises: he is dux bellorum, defender of sub-Roman Britain against the Anglo-Saxon invaders; he is the Celtic warrior-chief, warden of the oppressed and challenger to tyranny; he is the laudable king who tries to maintain a cohesive British identity as well as a coherent political unit; he has been assumed as one of a group of dark age tyrannical leaders; he is the high-spirited and playful adventurer surrounded by his closest friends; he is the cuckolded husband; and he is also the ineffectual roi fainéant who sat alone in his castle, awaiting the return of his knights-errant.
I felt that Lackey's Arthur could have been a fraction of any one of these, and it disappointed me that he wasn't. Still, I understand this novel was about Gwen and not him, so I've made my peace with this. :-)
Finally, what turned me off the most: while I appreciate that Lackey spent a lot of time researching and sifting through so much Arthurian lore -- Celtic myths, British legends, the Mabinogi, the Welsh Triads, sections of the De Excidio and the HRB -- as well as touching on the uneasy relationship between the early Christian Church and followers of the Old Religion, and somehow incorporating chunks of all of these into her work, in a very large way it was all too much. Less is certainly more, especially in this case, and in trying to stuff a 400-page novel with too much Arthuriana can be off-putting to both new and experienced followers of Arthur. It may have worked if she had decided on a 3- or 4-book series, where she would have had the time and space to nurse each bit and see it bloom into a fully idealized narrative construct. But with one book? It was too much.
Anachronisms notwithstanding (oh, and there were so many...the presence of Gildas alone made my ears waggle, but I'm not going there), it would have made more narrative sense to have chosen one or two main myths and tied those in with the pseudohistorical aspects. For instance, she could have chosen between telling the tale of the Three Gwenhyfars or the False Gwenhyfar, but not both. Similarly, she could have chosen from among the various Gwenhyfar abduction stories, but not all of them. The Arthurian canon is a large one, spanning over 1500 years of works in both the oral and written tradition. There's so much good stuff to choose from that it may be hard to pick and choose just one; it may be hard to fight the urge to not include everything. The problem is, when you make a concerted decision to add >a lot or too much, then the story suffers because it becomes diluted and it weakens what could have been a very strong, very tight work of fiction.
As I was first reading the novel, I was almost sure I was going to give it a 4 or 5. As I got towards the middle of the 2nd part, I dropped it down to a 3 or 4. When I read the 3rd part, I dropped it down to a 2 (and I must say, around midnight last night, I was thinking "Strongly feeling a 1 right now..."). Still, there was so much I liked about it in the beginning and in general that in the end, I decided on giving this 3 stars. It wasn't all bad even though it could have been much better, but in the end, it was one I enjoyed more than other Arthurian retellings I've read recently.(less)