There are three types of Arthurian novels that I have encountered. There are the Christian grail books which have to take an unusual approach to interThere are three types of Arthurian novels that I have encountered. There are the Christian grail books which have to take an unusual approach to interest me. There are the de-mythologizing novels that explain away the magical elements of the myth in realistic terms. These can be well-written, but they aren't the type of Arthurian fiction that I prefer. Among them are books that focus on Arthur as a military leader and are mainly composed of battle scenes. Lastly, there are the Arthurian fantasies that go back to pre-Christian sources of the myth and emphasize its magical components.
Mercedes Lackey has written a hybrid of the last two categories. There are historical elements based on research into the cultures of the Celts of ancient Britain, but there is also magic. There are humans performing magical spells, and the non-human denizens of Annwyn, an ancient Celtic name for the realm of Faerie. There is a great deal of focus on a military leader in this novel, but it isn't Arthur. It's the protagonist Gwenhwyfar. She is a strong character with whom I could identify. I especially loved the way she totally despised life at Arthur's court, and how much the superficiality of the ladies of the court bored her. I feel the same way about any novel that primarily deals with royal courts.
The only reason why this book doesn't get five stars is because of a conversation that Gwenhwyfar has with the Christian Abbot Gildas. It's terrific that she found common ground between her Paganism and his Christianity, but it bothered me that she seemed to have a very modern perspective on sacrifice. In most contemporary religious practices, including modern Neo-Paganism, sacrifice has been attenuated or is entirely absent. Ancient beliefs in cosmic balance have given way to the idea that sacrifice is no more than a macabre superstition. That is the attitude that Lackey's Gwenhwyfar expresses. The reason why the shift in attitudes about sacrifice is important is because it was bound up in the relationship of humanity toward nature and the animals with whom we share this planet. Sacrificial offerings were meant to respect the spirit of the place where it was made and of the beings (both plant and animal kinds)that we kill in order to live. Traditional practitioners of the religions of first peoples are in continuity with this idea. The lack of any concept of sacrifice as an acknowledgment is both a cause and an effect of our distance from nature. It has led to ecological destruction and climate change. Our species will eventually be destroyed because so many of us have forgotten what our ancestors knew about sacrifice. Gwenhwyfar was brought up with a completely different world view. I would have thought that she would have understood sacrifice and that she would have expressed that understanding to Gildas in a way that he could understand--perhaps by referring to the Crucifixion and its symbolic re-creation in the Christian mass.