Dawnflight tells the story of how Guinevere and Arthur met. Only this isn’t the Guinevere of legend. She is Gyanhumara (Gyan), the chieftainess of a fierce Pictish clan. Unlike the Brytoni women, Gyan wears clan tattoos and knows how to use a sword.
To fulfill a treaty, Gyan must marry Urien, the son of a Brytoni chieftain. If she refuses, her people will go to war. Because she wants to do what’s best for her people, Gyan agrees to marry Urien. Unfortunately, Urien is repelled by her “barbaric” ways, and he plans to tame her once they are wed.
Ready to marry Urien, despite her misgivings, Gyan journeys to Arthur’s headquarters. Then, she meets Arthur. Gyan and Arthur are drawn to each other from the start. Unlike Urien, Arthur respects Gyan’s strength. Both of them believe in fulfilling their duties, however, so they refuse to act on their feelings. It takes a brutal battle to change fate.
Put away your mental images of Queen Guinevere. Gyan doesn’t resemble them. Though she hasn’t yet seen battle, she is a warrior at heart. She faces her challenges head-on. Like Gyan, Arthur doesn’t resemble the Arthur of legends. This Arthur is truly a leader at home in fifth-century England, down to his bronze weapons and the Roman influence that still lingers in his life.
Gyan doesn’t meet Arthur until well into the story. Yet when they meet, the chemistry makes up for the separation. It’s clear to see that they are well suited, for they are both strong leaders devoted to their people. Arthur suffered from some moments of jealousy, but those didn’t overwhelm the novel.
It was easy to keep the characters straight, which is usually difficult in a novel with such a large cast. Most of the secondary characters are believable. Even Urien gains reader sympathy. The only character I had a hard time accepting was Arthur’s sister, Morghe, who, in contrast to Gyan, seemed petty and spoiled. Although anyone familiar with Arthurian mythology would expect villainous behavior from Morghe, her behavior in this rendition renders her more “fluffy” than I’d expected.
Unlike most retellings of the Arthur tale, this is more a historical novel than a fantasy. There is very little magic in Dawnflight. In this version, Merlin is a bishop and garrison commander rather than a wizard. Also, while Gyan worships the old gods at the beginning of the story, she eventually turns toward the One God worshipped by the Brytons. This plot thread might disconcert readers who prefer a “New Age” telling of the tale.
Kim Headlee has put a lot of research into this novel. That’s no mean feat considering how little we know of this period. Where the knowledge is scant, she has taken liberties, but her speculations seem reasonable. Best of all, she never lets her research overwhelm the story. While reading this book, you won’t even realize you’re learning new things about ancient Britain. I did have a couple of minor quibbles. For example, Arthur used the word “sex” to refer to intercourse, but that’s a modern usage of the term.
Fans of the Arthur legend will like Dawnflight for its new perspective. I would also recommend this book for people who want a glimpse into a world rarely seen in fiction. Like Guinevere, the tribes of ancient Britain are often given short shrift; this book does a good job of humanizing those people. Sensitive readers might find the battle scenes too authentic for their tastes, however.