Books about King Arthur are hardly few and far between. Entire libraries could be stocked entirely with books about Camelot, Merlin, and Arthur’s infamously ill-fated love triangle. To write a new book about the Arthur canon and expect to be given any sort of special attention, an author must either write beautifully or come at the story from a new or different angle. Phillip Reeve does both, to produce a fantastic and masterful story that will be sure to garner awards both here and in Reeve’s native Britain.
At ten years old (more or less) Gwyna is a slave girl. But she is about to embark on a major life change, as she becomes first the Lady of the Lake, then a boy, then a handmaiden to the doomed Gwenhwyfar. Gwyna’s journey begins on the night that Arthur and his war band destroy her house and all she has ever known. “Rescued” by Myrddin, a famous bard, she is immediately put to work to further his plans. Myrddin is convinced that the Saxons will soon arrive to destroy them all. The country’s only hope is to unite as one kingdom, rather than dozens of tiny areas ruled by war bands and jealous kings. Myrddin has decided that the only person capable of leading is Arthur, and to this end he will bend every truth and an embellish every tale to create a living legend, a man that other men will want to follow. If only the real Arthur were half as noble or chivalrous as the man Myrddin wants so desperately to believe in.
The reworking of the Arthur story without any real magic – unless one can count the magic of a good tale told – is not necessarily a new idea, but here it is taken to great heights. Other major changes to the story line include the absence of Morgan Le Faye and Lancelot. While Reeve does not mention in his author’s note why he chose note to include either of these famous characters, he does frequently reference “older stories” in speaking of some of the more surprising characterizations. I’ve followed the Camelot canon long enough to know that Lancelot was a relatively late addition to the legend, added hundreds of years later in an era that glorified courtly love. I would have enjoyed a longer author’s note explaining all of the thinking behind the twists Reeve threw into the more well-known storyline.
A recurring theme throughout the book is the idea that myths and stories have their own power. A powerful idea is often stronger than the actual reality of the world. Many teens and tweens are just beginning to realize the immense power of words. Certainly the hurt of a rumor is already well-known, but using a purposefully created story for “good” may be a singular concept for many. Although much of the book is cynical, revealing the many tricks and hypocrisies of the rulers, the eventual ending is one of hope, with the implication that Gwyna has chosen not only to live her own life, but also to create her own stories.
Notes on the cover: The hand emerging from the water makes complete sense in the context of the story and its narrator. However, the clouds and general coloring are almost generically “fantasy” effects meant to signal to the reader the genre of the book. While I think that most fantasy readers will love this version, it is significant to note that it is definitely not a fantasy. Historical fiction lovers who disdain the least bit of the magical will also be enthralled.