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Lately, I've been reading with an eye to making Hugo nominations, so this batch of short fiction reads is mostly selected from various lists of recommendations.


"The City Born Great," N. K. Jemisin; Tor.com, September 9, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/

An urban fantasy - though not the kind we're used to - about the gritty birth and life of the great cities, set in New York. Evocative and filled with a sense of urgency that pulls the reader toward its conclusion.


"This Is Not a Wardobe Door," A. Merc Rustad; Fireside Magazine Issue #29, January 2016
http://www.firesidefiction.com/issue29/chapter/this-is-not-a-wardrobe-door/

A story about imagination and hope and holding on to the magic of childhood when you believed you could change the world. At the end, I was crying.


"Checkerboard Planet," Eleanor Arnason; ClarkesWorld, December 2016
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/arnason_12_16/

A new Lydia DuLuth talr from Arnason is always a treat. In this novelette, the AIs who control the interstellar stargates have asked Lydia to investigate conditions on a planet with a most peculiar ecology - the entire land mass and parts of the oceans are organised into giant squares, all of similar size, with all the life forms in each square the same colour. The planet has been colonised by a biogenetics corporation which, the AIs fear, is not acting in the best interests of the planet or humanity. An anti-imperialist first contact story with a gentle and at times even whimsical touch.


"Fifty Shades of Grays," Steven Barnes; Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/fifty-shades-grays/

Carver Kofax is a master at marketing and sales. But when he and his colleague (and romantic interest) Rhonda, land the corporation they work for a lucrative and highly secretive contract, the nature of the campaign demands all their skills - and leads to unexpected and dire consequences for all of humanity. Barnes handles the revelations in the narrative and the protagonist's growing unease with a sure hand. Content warning: this novelette contains sexually explicit kink.


"A Dead Djinn in Cairo," P. Djeli Clark; tor.com, May 18, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/05/18/a-dead-djinn-in-cairo/

In an alternate pre-WWI Cairo, where djinn and angels from other dimensions mingle with humans, Special Inspector Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities investigates the apparent suicide of a djinn, only to discover a mad plot to destroy humanity. Will the dapper young inspector solve the mystery in time? Clark's novelette is a delighful genre-bending fantasy thriller with a touch of steampunk. Cairo comes to life in complex and sensual detail, and Fatma is a character I'd love to see again.


"The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight," E. Lily Yu, Uncanny Magazine, Sept-Oct 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/witch-orion-waste-boy-knight/

A relatively young and inexperienced witch decides to accompany a young knight errant seeking dragons to kill, and learns a few bitter lessons about honor, trust and pride.


"The Green Knight’s Wife," Kat Howard; Uncanny Magazine, November 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/green-knights-wife/

A compelling riff on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, told from the perspective of the Green Knight's wife, in which one of those women who is always on the sidelines in such hero tales, treated as merely part of the mythic machinery, takes up agency and acts for herself.


"Foxfire, Foxfire," Yoon Ha Lee; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 3, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/foxfire-foxfire/

A novelette blending fantasy and sf, set in a Asian- derived alternate universe where loyalists and rebels do battle with giant powered mechas. A young spirit fox with a great desire to become human - which he can only achieve by killing and eating 100 humans - is faced with difficult choices when captured by a mecha pilot. A story about transformations, and finding one's self.


"Unauthorized Access," An Owomoyela; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/unauthorized-access/

You would think a high profile hacker who's already spent time in prison for releasing government information that there was no reason to hide would be seriously radicalised - but for Aedo Leung, getting out of jail is only the beginning. A cautionary tale about the sequestration of public information that has suddenly become even more timely and appropriate.

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Elizabeth Peters' early standalone novel, the Camelot Caper, attracted me with its promise of an Arthurian theme. While there was just enough of Arthur to satisfy me, I was quite delighted to discover that this novel was very reminiscent in tone, plot and characterisation of one of my favourite childhood authors, Mary Stewart.

This novel, like many of Stewart's, is a sort of romantic suspense adventure built around a female protagonist who is neither weak nor stupid, although occasionally young and a touch naive. I'm not sure if anyone writes these any more - an everywoman who confronts some kind of unexpected danger, and who finds along the way a romance with a man who is not so much a saviour as a partner, who shares the mystery and the danger, but needs as much help as he gives. Wikipedia describes Stewart as "... a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations." And that's very much the genre that The Camelot Caper falls into.

The protagonist is a young American woman, Jessica Tregarth, visiting Britain for the first time at the behest of a dying grandfather. Her own father, who died when she was young, had been long estranged from his family, but had kept a family heirloom, a not very valuable man's ring, which Jessica's grandfather had asked her to bring with her.

The mystery begins when Jessica realises that someone else wants to get the ring before she can take it to her grandfather, and seems prepared to go to some lengths to get it. Fleeing from the two men pursuing her, she meets David, a writer of romantic mysteries, who at first thinks her story is part of a practical joke cooked up by his friends, but who is soon drawn into the mystery and offers his help in getting her safely to her grandfather in Cornwall.

The Arthurian connection comes in through the belief of the grandfather that their family is descended from a bastard son of Arthur's. His conviction that there are remnants of an Arthurian fortress, perhaps Camelot itself, on the family land has nearly bankrupted the family with repeated archeological excavations.

Along the twisty path to Cornwall, Peters also treats us to visits to a number of historical churches, and of course a stop at Glastonbury, as Jessica and David chase, and are chased in turn - and captured on several occasions - by the two mysterious men.

There are no red herrings here - the resolution of the mystery is directly connected to the ring, the excavations, the bankruptcy and the ancient legend, in a satisfying way. The romance is handled lightly, growing slowly as Jessica and David manage to figure out the connections, escape their captors, and set things right.

In The Camelot Caper, Peters has written a fine example of a possibly dated but nonetheless enjoyable genre.

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As gentle reader surely knows by now, there are certain things that generally delight me when I encounter them in books. Among these things are takes which draw on the Arthurian mythos, tales of female heroes, stories of women who love women, and novels that challenge or subvert traditional female roles. So one would expect that a novel set in a more-or-less historical Camelot, where the eternal triangle is between King Arthur, his competent and intelligent Queen Guinevere, and his best knight Lancelot - a passing woman - would be perfect for me. And indeed, I expected it to be so.

But...

I really wanted to love this book. For the wonderful idea of a female Lancelot, the best knight in the world as a passing woman, and the doomed love between Lancelot and Guinevere as a passion between two women. And I pushed through it, waiting patiently for it to 'click' for me. But it never quite did - though it came close at times.

I enjoyed Lancelot's voice, her innocence about the ways of the world turning to confusion, sorrow and pain as she sees at every turn the treatment of women and the brutality of war in Arthur's Britain. The telling of her descent into what can only be described as post-traumatic stress during the long sequence of battles against the Saxons.

Douglas clearly intends this book to be a critique that covers a range of feminist issues - from sexual abuse and domestic violence to paternalistic attitudes that limit women's opportunities and options. These issues are, in fact, present in the experience of virtually every female character who is even mentioned in the book. Unfortunately, the author falls into the trap of dismissing women's work, both physical and emotional, and women's concerns about relationships with men, family and children, as being something to be escaped, rather than accepted as a part of life that needs to be valued and embraced by society and all its members.

Instead of a story that validates all the possible choices women can make about their lives, what we get is a story in which women like Lancelot and Guinevere are able to transcend cultural limitations because they are different, and don't like "girl's things." Douglas also falls into the habit of giving most of the other women in the novel traditional roles - spurned lover, manipulative bitch, subservient wife, wise old crone, victim of violence or the dead woman in the fridge.

There are other problems. I found it overly slow and meandering, especially at the beginning. The author has incorporated elements of all the Arthurian stories she can possibly fit in, all together into one text, and it often seems that they are there just to add yet another instance of male indifference or brutality to women and their concerns, as many do not add significantly to the story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Even Malory, whose classic work is more a compendium of tales than a unified story, was selective about his choices, and kept one thread, that of the king whose greatness carries the seeds of his downfall, at the core of his narrative.

Moreover, there is something overly simplistic about the way key decisions that will literally change the course of lives are made. The choices that lead to Lancelot being raised as a boy in the first place, Gawaine's choice to follow Arthur, Morgan's decision to betray him, Guinevere's sudden acceptance of her lesbianism.... These things all happen almost without thought, like the flipping of a switch. The motivations are hollow, we barely see inside the characters enough to understand how or why such drastic choices are made and justified. We are told, but we do not see.

As well, the style of writing is rather pedestrian. At times it reads like a YA novel - and one for the younger end of that audience - but the themes of sexuality and violence rather run counter to that.

The story also relies upon one of my own pet peeves - failure to communicate. I was rather annoyed with the long keeping of secrets that prevented Guinevere and Lancelot from realising that their love was mutual. Particularly when there were so many times that Guinevere could have made it clear that she had seen through Lancelot's masculine facade. And it didn't stop with that. Certainly, a passing woman in such a time would need to keep her sex a secret, but there were so many other secrets kept by so many people.

On the other hand, it was quite satisfying to see some of the less-frequently adapted Arthurian tales brought into play, and to have so much of the story told from female perspectives, so I can't say there was no pleasure here for me. It's just that there could have been so much more. For those who want to explore the idea of a female Lancelot, in my opinion the gold standard remains Jo Walton's duology, The King's Name and The King's Peace.

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There are so many different ways to approach the Matter of Britain. One can take one's cue from the medieval romances, with chivalrous knights, or take any one of several historical approaches, from Arthur as Welsh warlord to Arthur as Samartian cavalry commander to Arthur as Romano-British dux bellorum. One can create a world much like our own, but not completely so - one in which our imaginings about ancient peoples make the rough world of the Britons, Saxons and Picts a more interesting place. And of course, there's always the question of whether or not to bring into the story the element of true magic.

Lavinia Collins' Arthurian novel, The Warrior Queen - first of the "Guinevere" trilogy - presents us with a story that dies not fit neatly into any of these styles. It has the shape and storyline of many of the romances, but tends toward the more truly historical in terms of everyday detail, and adds a full measure of magic. Arthur is a leader of knights, who wins his crown by drawing the sword from the stone, and goes off to conquer the Roman Emperor. But Guinevere is a Celtic war-queen from Brittany, who worships the old gods and not Arthur's Christ. And there are true witches here - Merlin, Morgan and Nimue - and some others with enough witchblood to sometimes do magic, including Guinevere herself.

Collins includes all the fateful love affairs of the romances in her tale - Arthur and Guinevere, Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur and Morgawse, Lancelot and Elaine (although she adds an interesting twist to this traditional pairing). But her interpretation of Guinevere is her own, and an interesting variation on the legends.
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For over a thousand years, people have been creating stories about King Arthur and his companions. For most of that time, the stories have centred on the deeds of the men of The Arthurian mythos (not that there haven't been women in these stories, but with a few exceptions, such as Arthur's sisters Morgana and Morgause, the main function of women in these tales has been to be the reason that the men go off and do things). In the last few decades, this has changed, as more and more writers have begun to tell stories of the women in Arthur's world, from the women's perspective. One emerging group of stories, of which Dawnflight is a fairly early example, focuses on Arthur's wife Guinevere, reimaging her as a warrior queen in her own right.

Dawnflight is the first book of a projected multi-volume series; the author, Kim Headlee, published this first volume in 1999 and has only recently brought out its first sequel. Now newly released and revised, Dawnflight follows Guinevere - here named Gyanhumara - from her upbringing to her marriage to Arthur. Gyan, as she is known, is a Pictish chieftainess, raised in a matrilineal society where power is shared between male and female; Arthur is Romano-British, from a culture in which women are rarely warriors or leaders. As the novel follows their inexorable coming together, we met many of the familiar characters of Arthurian legends, their traditional natures fleshed out and fitted into Headlee's vision of Arthur and Guinevere's world. A mixture of history, mythos and myth (the Irish hero Cuchulainn makes an appearance), it's an interesting take on the old stories and I'm looking forward to reading further volumes.

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In 2013, Some of the historical novels I read were actually re-reads of books I had first read a rather long time ago. First among these were the Brothers of Gwynedd series by Edith Pargeter. I've long been entranced by the history (and mythology) of Wales, an interest that probably goes back to my first explorations of the King Arthur myths, or perhaps to the publication of Evangeline Walton's four-part adaptation of The Mabinogion published in the early 1970s.

In any event, the bloody and tragic story of the last Prince of an independent Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd has long been a favourite subject of mine, one I first read about in Pargeter's quartet. Sharon Kaye Penman has also written an excellent series of books about the disastrous wars with England and the final conquest of Wales, but there's nothing wrong with having several versions of the same story. 

Edith Pargeter, The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet
Sunrise in the West
Dragon at Noonday
The Hounds of Sunset
Afterglow and Nightfall


When I was young, Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors, and with the recent film based on the book, The Eagle of the Ninth, many of her books are becoming more available again, which means that this is the perfect time to re-read some of the books I loved. And even though these two series, set in a more historic Roman Britain and a far less historic court of King Arthur, were originally ibtended as yiung adult books, Ifound that despite the years, I enjoy them still.

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles
The Eagle of the Ninth
The Silver Branch
The Lantern Bearers

Rosemary Sutcliff, The King Arthur Trilogy
The Sword and the Circle
The Light Beyond the Forest
The Road to Camlann


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Dust, Elizabeth Bear

Start with a traditional science fictional setting: the multi-generational space ship (The Jacob's Ladder) stalling in its journey whose passengers, long years after the original catastrophe, have forgotten their goal and begin to evolve their own society, feudal/medieval in structure, with strict lines of caste/national identity based on the ship's duties of their ancestors. Add in some nifty new science fiction concepts, like artificial intelligences and bio-engineered nanoorganisms. Now toss in a big dose of Biblical and Arthurian legends and archetypes, from the grail story to the Garden of Eden, and give the recipe to one of the most original minds writing speculative fiction today, Elizabeth Bear.

What you get is not easy to describe, but very rewarding to read. And it’s the first in a trilogy, so there’s much more to come. This makes me happy.

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Elizabeth Bear’s first two novels of the Promethean Age, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, are, in my mind, absolutely brilliant. These books are to what is often called urban fantasy as Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is to a Harlequin romance. Not that there's anything wrong with the standard urban fantasy book (I read several series in this subgenre most avidly) or with Harlequin romances (not my cup of tea, but clearly they offer satisfaction to a great many people). But Bear's books, although unarguably fantasy, and clearly set in a modern urban setting (at least those portions that take place on Earth, and not in Faerie), are something quite special indeed.

As with many of Bear’s novels, there’s almost too much going on to even being to state a simple premise, over-arching plot or singular theme, but one can begin by saying that the universe of The Promethean Age is one where Earth and Faerie, Heaven and Hell, are real… places. Dimensions, overlapping and intertwined worlds, or something like that. The Earth is much as we know it, except that in the places that no one ordinarily looks to closely at, there are Magi, many of them members of the Prometheus Club, an organization which has for centuries waged a war with the realm of Faerie for the control of Earth. But neither the human Magi nor the otherworldly folk of Faerie can be said to be monolithic blocs, and there are power struggles between factions of the Magi and factions and courts of Faerie. And of course, various parties have various allegiances with Heaven and Hell – and not necessarily the ones one might expect.

Some reviewers have suggested that Bear has researched her material a bit too deeply. Certainly the more one is familiar with folk ballads, history (particularly the Elizabethan period), world mythology, other literary interpretations of the realm of Faerie and of the relationship between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, Arthurian myths, and sundry other related fields of interest, the more one are likely to find in these books that delights with a fresh perspective on familiar characters and ideas. But the use of all of these stories, of differing degrees of presumed truth and cultural influence, is absolutely key to what Bear is doing with these books, because one of the underlying themes in the Promethean series is all about the consequences of the act of creation and the role of the imagination in creating and shaping reality.

As for me, I thought these two books were among the best things I read in 2008. I'm currently reading the next duology in the Promethean novels, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, and if anything, these are even better than the first.

Edit: Since I wrote this brief comment on my reaction to Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, the racial tropes Bear uses in exploring another of her themes in these books - issues of bondage,servitude and obligation - have been critiqued by several readers of colour as problematic. Bear herself has not handled the critiques or the discussions that spread out from her responses particularly well. (For context on this debate, which has come to be known as RaceFail 09, please see this post by [personal profile] rydra_wong for a very long list of pertinent links, including links to some timelines and summaries.)

I agree that the tropes are problematical. My reading of the text is that Bear was attempting, among many other things, to deconstruct these racialised tropes as part of her exploration of binding and servitude. Speaking as a person with white privilege, I think that she was successful in this to some degree, certainly enough that I was encouraged by the book alone to think about these issues. But I am not a person of colour, it is not bodies that look like mine that are being used in the text to do this deconstruction, so the text had no power to anger or injure me. It was easy for me to read a text written by a white author that made use of these tropes, and wait for her to show me what she intended in making use of them.

Moreover, the author was working primarily with myths that were drawn from my home culture, one in which concepts of binding spells and geasa and other, similar tropes are common and not racialised, and in my privilege I did not think about how the use of explicitly racialised characters and tropes would affect people of colour.

I am not detracting my statement that these books were among the best that I read in 2008, but I am acknowledging that there are serious issues of cultural appropriation and how to write racialised characters and situations to be considered in approaching this text, and that it should not have been easy for me not to see these issues up front. I need to be a more careful reader where race is concerned.

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The Follies of Sir Harald, Phyllis Ann Karr.

In The Follies of Sir Harold, Karr has crafted that most rare of works, the Arthurian farce. This is the quite wonderfully whimsical tale of a knight sinister (in truth, for our villain knight is left-handed) who, through many misadventures that play most fast and loose with chivalric tales and traditions, eventually ends up to be... not such a bad fellow after all. If that weren’t enough, the text is chock-full of in-jokes, which refer both to the long tradition of Arthurian and fantastical literature and to a few most suitable popular culture icons, all cleverly woven into the tale.

A gem for Arthurian aficionados.

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I know, it’s hard to believe, but I’d never read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series before this year. But, what with the movie coming out and everyone talking about what a mess it had made of the books – plus the fact that I knew they were part of that large body of modern fantasy with Arthurian themes – I finally got around to reading the series.

Over Sea, Under Stone
The Dark is Rising
Greenwitch
The Grey King
Silver on the Tree

I should begin with the admission that I’m rather iffy about young adult books. Sometimes I like them a lot, and sometimes I don’t like them at all, and I’ve never really been able to figure out what it is that makes the difference. But these, I liked. And not just because Merlin was hanging about being all archetypically mysterious.

Like many epic fantasies, this series is another take on the battle between good and evil, drawing on both the history and the mythology of Britain to tell the story of the last-born Old One – a young boy named Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, whose destiny it is to complete, with the aid of both the other remaining Old Ones, including the Merlinesque Merriman Lyon, and three young, and very brave and inquisitive but otherwise quite ordinary children Barney, Jane, and Simon Drew, a sequence of magical tasks that will allow him to stand as the last Merlin at the side of the last Pendragon in the final battle.

Yummy stuff. And fine reading for a few unusually dark and dreary winter’s eves.

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Yes, I've been galloping through a few more Arthurian novels in recent months.

Percival and the Presence of God, Jim Hunter

In this short novel, Hunter works with the essense of the story of Percival, his dual quest for King Arthur and the Holy Grail, as told by Chretien de Troyes and later writers. Percival begins his quest with the naïvité and enthusiasm of youth, believing that he can have it all - love, glory and God - that he can complete his quests and return to his belived Whiteflower/Blanchefleur. But instead, he discovers that life is fraught with mischance and danger, and that not all quests can be fulfilled, not all desires can be attained. Through it all runs the theme of Percival's desire to witness the Grail, as a symbol of his spiritual call; but not even that is give to him fully. As Hunter said in an interview with Arthurian scholar Raymond Thompson:
"The Grail ceremony that is not understood or recognized, and is bewildering; then the need to go back and find it again, and possibly never succeed. That to me was the core. It provides the whole sense of the hero's destiny. He is trapped by his destiny in a way that I imagine people like Lancelot and Galahad aren't. He's a bit like a Flying Dutchman or an Ancient Mariner. He's got to go on searching and looking, and he may or may not find the lord of the Grail."


Legends of the Pendragon, ed. James Lowder

James Lowder has collected an anthology of fascinating variations on the theme of the days before the coming of Arthur the High King - tales of Vortigern and the coming of the Saxons, of the young Merlin, of Uther Pendragon, and of the adventurs of the knights of legend, before there was a Round Table. A well-edited collection with some real gems; my favourites include Nancy Varian BerBerick's "Hel's Daughter," Beth anderson's "The Time in Between," Keith Taylor's "A Spear in the Night," and Aaron rosenberg's "six for the Sword."

The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis

Clemence Houseman's book, originally written in 1905, is an interesting (although not always easy to engage with) study of the psychology of tempatation, moral failure, despair and the struggle for redemption, told through an examination of the life of one of the minor knights of the Arthurian cast of characters, Sir Aglovale de Galis.

There are few extensive references to Sir Aglovale in the body of Arthurian literature; for this novel, Houseman collected each refernce from Malory, created a logical timeline (not always easy when dealing with Malory) and fleshed out the interior life of her protagonist. Sir Aglovale is a man with grave character flaws, who at times gives in to his impusles toward envy, greed, violence, anger, lust and all the other sins of the material world, sometimes wallows despairingly in his capacity for doing wrong and his sense of damnation, and sometimes fights heroically to find redemption - but never deceives himself or others about his nature. In this he is shown to be in some ways more worthy of redeption than many others at Arthur's court, who commit sins of equal measure, but conceal them or disguise them beneath a veneer of noble contention to be the best knight of the realm.

Houseman copies Malory's style with great art and precision, with the consequence that this is not exactly the most accessible text - but it is worth the while for the serious Arthurian enthusiast.

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Arthur, the Bear of Britain, Edward Frankland

One of the earlier modern recountings of the Arthurian material, and one of the first to take a purely historical approach by attempting to set the core story in a naturalistic, historically accurate post-Roman Britain, Arthur, the Bear of Britain was first published in 1944. Frankland says of his novel, in the author’s afterword:
"The outline of my story has been designed from any scraps of material which seem to be of historical value. Here and there, like Geoffrey, I have had recourse to pure, but I think not unreasonable, invention. I have preserved the central romance of Arthur, Medraut, and Guinevere (more correctly Gwenhwyvar), not only on account of its tragic splendour, but because intuitively one feels that it springs from a germ of truth rather than fiction."
The novel is organised in an episodic fashion, with each chapter headed by a reference to one of the traditional 12 battles fought by Arthur, or to another specific incident or situation in the Arthurian corpus, taken from some of the earliest sources available – Nennius, Gildas, the early Welsh and Scottish references to legends of Arthur.

The cast of characters and their interpersonal relationships are not always those that have been fixed into the modern version of the legend. There is the eternal trio, here constituted as Arthur, Medraut and Gwenhwyvar, with Medraut as the son of Arthur’s treacherous half-brother Modron, Arthur’s true companion for some time, who is slowly turned away though his desire for power and his uncle’s wife, and Gwenhwyvar as a rather selfish woman who wants her husband to stay at home and build her a comfortable castle rather than running all over Britain and southern Scotland using up his time, his strength and his resources fighting the Saxons wherever they may be. There are the traditional companions Kai and Bedwyr, and a host of Bitish and Cymic lords and princes who simply will not come together long enough in truce, if not in peace, for Arthur to do more than hold back the Saxons for a time.

I found it interesting but not especially enjoyable reading – Frankland’s style makes use of a great deal of (pages and pages, in fact) of inner ruminations and virtual monologues in which the characters discuss, somewhat repetitively, their inner thoughts and motivations. Medraut and Gwenhwyvar ponder, both separately and together, over whether or not they will betray Arthur for two-thirds of the book before they get around to doing it. Arthur is brought by circumstances to declare over and over again that he does not want power for himself, he does not wish to fight against other Britons, he wants only to keep the Britons free of Saxon overlords. As well, the episodic structure of the book makes it somewhat difficult to keep the story line flowing, but there are some very nice touches in the way key elements of the legend, such as the idea of the Round Table, are worked naturalistically and almost casually into the narrative.

What is important and memorable about this novel, beyond its insistence on an accurate portrayal of the casual brutality and violence of the historical period Arthur’s life must be placed against, is the portrait of Arthur himself. As Raymond Thompson says in his introduction to the current edition:
This is the world that Frankland creates for us…. First published in England in 1944, it reflects, perhaps, the savagery of a new dark age in which total war threatened the destruction of all that was held dear. The nobility and sacrifice of Arthur yr Amherawdyr, Arthur the emperor, also known as Artos the Bear, stand out in this world in a contrast made all the more striking by the enveloping darkness. When his nephew Medraut advises him to seek power after his great victory at Badon, Arthur, who had earlier vowed to fight against the invaders instead of other Britons, insists upon adhering to his principles: “A man may take it upon him to do as you counsel me to do and good may come of it; but for good or for ill I am not that man,” he responds. He pays the price for his decision on the battlefield of Camlann where, as she washed the blood from the face of his corpse, Garwen laments, “Of all the heroes that come up out of the race of Britons, this man sought least for himself and was most basely betrayed.”
At the end of the book, Frankland diverges from the legends of the three queens who bear Arthur's body away, but retains the essence and meaning of this, in his handling of the burial of Arthur. The two survivors of Camlann, Bedwyr the companion and Garwen the lover, take Arthur's body from the field of battle so that no one can know for certain, after, if he fell or lived on, and place his body within an ancient barrow, thought to be an entrance to the places of the folk under the hills, where he lies alone beneath the land he lived and died to defend. I found myself, as I read this, thinking of Jo Walton's Arthurian-themed books The King's Peace and The King's Name, because of the striking image - one that I've really only found so clearly in this work and in hers, of Arthur returning to be one with the heart and soul and spirit of the land, rather than being carried away into another place to wait for his time to come again.

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The Pagan King, Edison Marshall

Edison Marshall is perhaps best known for his historical novel The Viking, which was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas. The Pagan King is Marshall’s foray into another era where history and legend mingle, Britain after the departure of the Romans but before the invasion of the Saxons is complete – the time of Arthur.

In The Pagan King, Marshall starts with Arthurian material drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, William of Malmsbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, and various Welsh sources to produce his tale of Arthur, the protegé of Merlin, who battles and defeats Vortigern to become a king and war leader of several of the tribes of southern Britain fighting a long war against the Saxons. Readers steeped in the Arthurian romances may find the re-working of the roles and relationships of Arthur, Guinevere (Wander), Merlin, Mordred, Vivain, Elian (Elaine) and Llewelan (Lancelot) of the Lake and others somewhat surprising, and wonder at the absences of some of Arthur’s traditional companions.

The novel is well-written, well-researched and quite realistic in tone, and has an ending that is not only unusual in the lists of Arthurian novels, but perfectly fitting in its realistic way with the later legendary “rex quondam rexque futurus.”

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The Kingdom of the Grail, Judith Tarr

In The Kingdom of the Grail, Tarr has created a story that is a thoroughly enjoyable blend of Arthurian legend and the tales of the court of Charlemagne, two of the three canonical subject mattes for medieval storytellers, as named by French poet Jean Bodel: “Ne sont que iii matières à nul homme atandant, De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.” In creating a tale with roots in both traditions, Tarr makes use of the great French epic, La Chanson de Roland, while drawing considerable background from Wagner’s opera Parsifal, itself inspired by the earlier epic poem Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, which presents one version of Parzival’s quest for the Holy Grail

Tarr begins with the idea that Merlin, child of a human woman and a demon summoned by a powerful, evil, and near-immortal sorcerer, lives on in imprisonment and has, through the human enchantress Nimue, fathered the line that culminates in Roland, the greatest hero of Charlemagne’s court, and Roland’s adversary, the ancient sorcerer, has been trying for centuries to gain possession of the Grail. Foiled once before by Parsifal, brother to Nimue and trained by Merlin, the adversary is preparing to mount another assault on the Grail kingdom, a place no longer of this world, but still accessible through magic, known as Monsalvat.

The first part of the novel follows the basic plot of La Chanson de Roland, but the pivotal events are revisioned as steps in the struggle between the sorcerer – identified with the character of Ganelon from the Chanson – and Roland. In the second half of the novel, however, instead of dying with his companions at the battle of Roncesvalles, Roland is transported to Monsalvat where he is expected to prepare to lead the forces of the Grail Kingdom against the gathering armies of the ancient enemy that seeks to take the Grail and use its power for evil. Tarr brings these elements together into a most satisfying tale of heroic destinies and the great and everlasting battle between good and evil.

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Exiled From Camelot, Cherith Baldry

This novel, like Dorothy Roberts’ Kinsmen of the Grail, draws much of its source material from the Perlesvaus and thus contains a number of characters not familiar to reader more accustomed to the tale as compiled by Malory.

Baldry’s protagonist is one of the less well-known knights of the Round Table, Sir Kay – Seneschal and Arthur’s foster brother, who is often portrayed as sharp-tongued or rude, even sarcastic, as both a braggart and a coward, and not, shall we say, the best-loved knight of the realm.

In the Perlesvaus, Kay is one of the bad guys. He is jealous of Arthur’s son Loholt, and after his murder of the young knight (who in this version is a good knight and the legitimate son on Arthur and Guinevere) is discovered, flees Arthur’s court and allies himself with Arthur’s enemies, Brian of the Isles and Meliant. In other early version of the tale, Loholt is illegitimate, and treacherous, while Kay remains a respected knight of Arthur’s court despite killing the king’s son.

Baldry, for whom Kay is clearly a favourite among all the knights mentioned in Arthurian literature, reconciles these two versions of the conflict between Kay and Loholt in her novel and at the same time presents a deeply moving portrait of an intensely loyal but socially inept man who loves his foster brother as both man and king, and who is misunderstood, and even mocked, because he is only an average knight whose service to the king and realm lies in his extraordinary abilities as a manager and administrator, in a time where heroes are defined as men who win glory in battles.

I loved this take on Kay, who is so often ignored or maligned in the legends. Brava to Baldry for re-inventing the heroic knight – for there’s no doubt about it, in this novel, Kay’s courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice save the day in ways that are more heroic than anything Lancelot or Gawain can do with all their fighting prowess.

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The Doom of Camelot, (ed.) James Lowder.

This is a collection of original stories (and a few poems), all of which focus, in their own way, on the tragedy of Camelot, its fatal flaw – whatever the author envisions that to be. What brought about the end of the age of Arthur, the promise that has inspired so many visions since the first elements of this Matter of Britain were set to song or memory or paper?

For some authors in this collection, it is an inevitable doom, brought on by the slow failing of an ageing king, whether in body or in fighting spirit and kingship, which brings about weakening of alliances, an increased Saxon threat from outside and challenges to leadership from within (“A Hermit’s Tale” by Catherine Wells, “The Last Road” by Elizabeth Wyrick Thompson, “Saxon Midnight” by Darrell Schweitzer).

For others, it is some variation or consequence on the tragic lovers’ triangle – Arthur, Guenivere and Arthur’s greatest knight (usually but not always Lancelot) – that carries within it the seeds of doom. (“In the Forest Perilous” by Cherith Baldry, “Hidden Blades” by Elaine Cunningham)

Another theme addressed by some of these stories is that of the failure of the Quest in its deepest sense – the great ideals which are simply too much for humans, with their frailties and flaws, to sustain for long, and which even detract from the simple task to do what is right. (“The last Idle of the King” by Phyllis Ann Karr, “Grail Wisdom” by India Edghill, “The Shadow of a Sword” by Ed Greenwood, “The Knight Who Wasn’t There” by Douglas W Clark).

Some stories focus on the idea of struggle between good and evil, light and darkness – often positioning Arthur’s sister (whether she be named Morgaine, Morgause, or something else) as the great rival who will eventually find a way to introduce corruption into the heart of her brother’s bright and shining hour (“The Corruption of Perfection” by Mike Ashley, “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth” by Meredith L Patterson).

For some authors the doom of Camelot lies in multiple weaknesses and flaws, woven together with the light and hope. (Three Queens Weeping” by C.A. Gardner, “Surrendering the Blade” by Marcie Lynn Tentchoff, “Avillion” by Verlyn Flieger).

And at the end of it all, Susan Fry reminds us in “The Battle, Lost” of how little the great deeds of noble men and women have meant throughout the centuries to the simple peasant who lives at the mercy of weather, war and the demands of those great nobles as they pursue their glorious dreams.

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The Warlord Chronicle, by Bernard Cornwell
The Winter Kingl
The Enemy of God
Excalibur

There are many variants of the modern Arthurian novel – the medieval fantasy, the Romano-Celtic fantasy, the more-or-less historical novel, the modern retelling, the translation of key themes to original modern fantasy or science fiction novel, and so on.

Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicle novels are mostly historical in nature, with a very serious attempt to recreate the era in which someone who might have been Arthur most probably lived – although of course, historians themselves vary to some degree in their interpretation of what’s known about that time period, so you can have two authors committed to their own sense of historical accuracy producing works as different as Cornwell's novel and those of Jack Whyte, even though both are quite clear about being set in a post-Roman Britain that retains strong Celtic elements, during the spread of Christianity, which faces the Saxon invasions.

Cornwell gives us some supernatural content, through the choice of a narrator who begins life as a Saxon child who survives being sacrificed by British druids, only to grow up in the household of Merlin, Druid to the Dumnonian king Uther, and ends his life as a Christian monk, writing the “truth” of the story of Arthur for a young queen whose lord rules in the days after Arthur has departed from human ken. Cornwell’s narrator, Derfel, was Arthur’s companion and sworn man and now, in his later years, at the prompting of a royal patron, is setting down his recollections of what happened from his perspective as a man close to, but not always in the middle of, the action.

The books are loosely structured around Nennius’ list of Arthur’s battles, but because there is such a wealth of detail of the daily lives of the main characters – quite a large cast – as well as the politics and religious debates of the time, the battles do not overwhelm the human story.

Cornwell makes use of some less common sources, and presents a set of interactions between characters that is rather different from the standard set familiar to most readers of works from Mallory onward. Here, Arthur is Uther’s bastard son, while Mordred is Uther’s legitimate grandson and heir, and Arthur is sworn on Uther’s death to hold the throne of Dumnonia for Mordred. Arthur must first fight against other kings to preserve his nephew's lands, and later try to forge them into one political unit under his leadership as warlord - Dux bellorum - to fold back the Saxons. In the end, after defending himself against repeated treachery from many quarters, he decides that Mordred does not deserve the throne and his loyalty, a decision which leads to the final battle of Camlann.

Competing religious beliefs have a great deal of influence on the unwinding of this version of the tale. Arthur is a follower of Mithras, but tries to balance pagan and Christian factions; he listens both to the advice of the Druid Merlin and of a moderate Christian bishop. Arthur’s sister Morgan begins as a student of Merlin and ends as the wife of one of the more fervent proponents of Christianity. Arthur’s wife, Guenevere, is a worshipper of Isis. Derfel, the story’s narrator, is raised by Merlin (and Morgan), becomes an initiate of Mithras, follows Merlin and his protégé Nimue in a quest for the 13 treasures of Britain, the most potent of which is a sacred cauldron, and finally becomes a Christian recluse under the authority of none other than Morgan’s Christian husband.

I enjoyed this telling of the tale – particularly because Cornwell, while bringing the latter-day interloper Lancelot into the story, makes of him a boastful, deceitful and manipulative coward who gains his glorious posthumous stature only through good press and being on the side that ultimately conquered – the Christians. In this way, and through Derfel’s comments in the frame about how the account he writes will no doubt be prettied up by his patron queen’s scribes because it’s not romantic and heroic enough, Cornwell reminds us that there are indeed many ways of viewing the tale of Arthur and acknowledges the ambiguity inherent in declaring any version as the historical truth.

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Kinsmen of the Grail, Dorothy James Roberts

This book was published in 1963, before the explosion of interest in the literature of fantasy in general that followed the success of The Lord of the Rings - and just at the same time as the release of Disney’s animated The Sword and The Stone (which I’ve always suspected had something to do with the flowering of Arthurian-based fantasy and historical fiction that began some 10 to 15 years later, once the children who watched it grew up to become writers).

Unlike many Arthurian retellings that take their shape and focus from Mallory (ca. 1470), Roberts’ inspiration is the Gawain story from the Perlesvaus, also known as Le Haut Livre du Graal, (ca. 1120). The Perlesvaus collected all the then-extant Grail legends, and its focus was Perceval and his quest for the Grail. The Gawain story is a counterpoint to that of Perceval – the knight who begins the search but, lacking commitment to the Grail, cannot find it.

Roberts' book is a moving portrait of a middle-aged warrior caught between his sense of duty and obligation, his longing for a simple family life, and his desire for spiritual growth. Nearing the end of his prime, he encounters the almost supernaturally gifted Perceval – destined to be the knight without peer, the Grail Knight. Lonely after long years spent a widower, he falls in love with Perceval’s mother, the deeply pacifist Iglais. A practical man of the world of responsibilities to king and the people of the king, he is confronted with the manifestation of what is most profound and sublime in the spiritual life.

Drawn on the one hand into the Grail quest through his interactions with and responsibilities to Perceval and Iglais (who are members of the mysterious Grail family), and commanded on the other hand into an investigation of what turns out to be plots of treason against his sworn lord Arthur, Gawain must eventually make his choice between duty and personal desires, as we all do in our own way.

A different modern-day approach to the Arthurian material, and a worthwhile read.

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Since I've started the day on an Arthurian note, I shall continue in that vein. One of my Christmas gift books was the first volume in a series called The Descendants of Merlin by Irene Radford. I have since then acquired and read the entire series - at least as far as it goes to date, I don't know if the author considers the series finished. The five books are:

Guardian of the Balance
Guardian of the Trust
Guardian of the Vision
Guardian of the Promise
Guardian Of The Freedom

The premise of the series is that Merlin sired a daughter as a result of a magical Great Marriage-style rite with his priestess counterpart, and that this daughter, once grown, bore a child sired by Arthur himself. The resulting lineage is that of the true Pendragons of Britain, and they have acted throughout time, either openly or secretly, to preserve the island against threats, both magical and mundane.

The premise of a secret society or lineage that watches over the fate of Britain is not a new one, nor is the notion that Britain has at times required supernatural help of the pagan variety to survive. A case in point would be the lingering belief that Sir Francis Drake sought help in defeating the Spanish Armada from a coven of sea witches who conjured the great storm that scattered the invading fleet. And then there are the traditions concerning the Templars and the Scottish Rite Freemasons, the notion that early Norman kings of England followed some variation on the ritual king-sacrifice, and so on. In particular, the idea of Merlin, Arthur, or both somehow continuing to guard Great Britain is a reasonably common one in Arthurian literature and in fiction dealing with alternative history fantasies of Britain in general. There's a lot of material to play with in the genre, and Radford has certainly drawn of a fair amount of what's available, even going so far as to bring the Illuminati into her final volume, set at the time of the American revolution.

On whole, I must say that while I read and enjoyed the books, I'm not sure that I thought well enough of the entire series to recommend it. The first volume, which is a retelling of the core story of Merlin and Arthur, and hence sets up the means by which the lines of both can continue throughout history, is in my opinion the most interesting book of the series. The next two, set in the England of King John and the early part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, are good - in fact, the second book, with its very memorable protagonist, the powerful sorceress Resmiranda, is possibly the best of the series. The series begins to unravel somewhat in the fourth volume, which deals with the second half of Elizabeth's reign and the religious discord between Catholics and Huguenots in France, and it has become a little tedious in the fifth volume, in which the Pendragon legacy divides and some of Merlin's descendants head off to protect America instead.

There are a number of reasons why the series doesn't quite work well enough for me. Some of it may well be that I've been spoiled by writers such as Judith Tarr and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in the realm of alternative historical fantasy. Very few authors meet the standards they have set for exhaustive historical research seamlessly blended into the story. Also, it seemed to me that in focusing more and more over time on division and corruption within the Pendragon line itself, the later books became somewhat overly complicated as the author tries to link the factional discords and plots within the Pendragon line to the already complex political intrigues of the Elizabethan and Georgian eras.

While the protagonists are strong in all five volumes (indeed, the protagonist of the fifth and otherwise weakest book has a very strong and enjoyable hero, a young woman named Georgie who spends much of the novel passing as an elite mercenary soldier), the characterizations of the supporting characters are sometimes weak and inconsistent - they are whatever the story needs them to be at the time instead of reacting organically as themselves. Again, this is most obvious in the fifth volume, where Georgie's brother Drake is heroic and weak by turns, without much to justify his changes, while Georgie's niece and the likely future Pendragon Emily is alternately horrified and adoring of her aunt's unconventionality, depending on whether the plot requires her to be susceptible or resistant to the blandishments of one of the villains within the Pendragon clan who seeks to marry her and turn her to the Dark Side.

So, in all, an interesting premise, moderately enjoyable to read, but on the weak side in several rather important areas.

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As Gentle Reader may recall, in the course of my quest for a copy of Naomi Mitchison's incomparable Arthurian novel To the Chapel Perilous, I discovered that my former medieval studies professor, Arthurian scholar Raymond H. Thompson, had served as consulting editor for a series of reprints of lost classics (and some new pearls) of Arthurian-based fiction.

I managed to acquire several of the books last year, including, of course, the afore-mentioned jewel by Mitchison.

I am now totally delirious with the joy of being able to report that my beloved partner [personal profile] glaurung_quena has actually acquired all but two of the books published as part of this series, and as soon as I can render them readable*, I will no doubt disappear into some vague and mystical place not far from Glastonbury Tor and devour them.

For those with any interest in the field, my latest acquisitions are:

Percival and the Presence of God, by Jim Hunter. (6201, Chaosium, 1997); reprint of the 1978 Faber and Faber edition.

Arthur, the Bear of Britain, by Edward Frankland. (6202, Chaosium/Green Knight Publishing co-publication, 1998); reprint of the 1944 McDonald & Co. edition.

Kinsmen of the Grail, by Dorothy James Roberts. (6204, Green Knight Publishing, 2000); reprint of the 1963 Little, Brown and Company edition.

The Life of Sir Aglovale, by Clemence Housman. (6205, Green Knight Publishing, 2000); reprint of the 1905 Methuen & Co. Ltd. edition.

The Doom of Camelot, edited by James Lowder. (6206, Green Knight Publishing, 2000); original anthology.

Exiled From Camelot, by Cherith Baldry. (6207, Green Knight Publishing, 2001); original novel.

The Pagan King, by Edison Marshall. (6208, Green Knight Publishing, 2001); reprint of the 1959 Doubleday & Co. edition.

Legends of the Pendragon, edited by James Lowder. (6211, Green Knight Publishing, 2002); original anthology.

The Follies of Sir Harald, by Phyllis Ann Karr. (6212, Green Knight Publishing, 2001); original novel.

The two books remaining to be collected from the series are:

The Merriest Knight: The Collected Arthurian Tales of Theodore Goodridge Roberts, edited by Mike Ashley. (6210, Green Knight Publishing, 2001); original collection of Roberts' stories, including previously unpublished material.

Pendragon, by Wilfred Barnard Faraday. 96213, Green Knight Publishing, 2002); reprint of the 1930 Methuen & Co. Ltd. edition.

Colour me happy.



*As Gentle Reader may know, I suffer from profound environmental illness, which makes book reading a bit of a challenge, as many kinds of papers and inks emit volatile gases at levels too low for the average person to detect, but which can make me profoundly ill. Added to that, I am also severely affected by many of the artificial components of things like perfume and scented personal care and air-freshening products, which many of these books, being used copies, have absorbed from, say, being read by someone wearing hand lotion or being read in a room where a scented candle or one of those hideously poisonous air freshening products was present. (And yes, I can smell your hand lotion or your air freshener on a book you may have read five years ago.) Many books I acquire must be heated gently over a long period of time to drive out as many volatiles as possible before I can read them. Sigh. It's sheer torture knowing that you actually have a book you've been waiting impatiently to read, but knowing that it will be at least another couple of months before it's safe to go ahead and read it.

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