It’s hard to believe that a story first published in the 1400’s – and told for possibly hundreds of years before – still has new incarnations coming out regularly. But the legend of Arthur, Merlin, his queen, and knights continues to capture the imagination of readers and authors alike. While originally written in French, it is, in many ways, the defining tale of England – painting a portrait of chivalry, magic, maidens, and quests that no fantasy fan can resist.
If you were given the choice between magic, which only the gifted can do – and the warrior’s path of iron, which those with discipline and will can do, which path would you take? For Gwenhwyfar, the young daughter of Lleudd Ogrfan Gawr , known as “The Giant”, her choice is clear. While powerfully gifted, she has always been enamored with horses, chariots, bows and arrows – and dreams of learning the skills of a knight. Her father and mother agree to her training, sending another, less gifted daughter to the Ladies to learn magic. Gwen excels at her lessons, having a talent for working with horses, for the stealth needed for spying missions, and for the bow and arrow. She takes great pride in her abilities, taking little interest in the workings of the rest of the kingdom.
Then the Saxons attack and the king’s companion Lancelin is sent to help her father and his allies plan their defenses and counter-attacks. It is clear that he has little use for female warriors, that not being the tradition of Rome which Arthur’s court follows, and it is equally true that he has little use for Gwen as a woman. She thinks of changing that, of putting on the pretty dresses that would show her to advantage, but is advised against it. Lancelin can see her as a pretty maid or a warrior but will never accept her as both. Gwen makes her decision – she has fought too long and hard for what she has and eventually, she earns Lancelin’s grudging respect as an outstanding war chief When events spiral far beyond what she ever dreamed, bringing forth new enemies and giving her the opportunity to be in Arthur’s court, Gwen must decide if there is anything – or anyone- she will change for. And if so, what will the cost of that change be?
In the afterward we learn that the inspiration for this novel was found in the Welsh legends, in the Triad of “The Three Guineveres”. To quote: Triad 56 of the Trioedd Ynys Prydeins, translated as the “Triads of the Island of Britain” lists the “Three Great Queens” of Arthur’s Court. Three Great Queens of Arthur’s Court: Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywyrd And Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythr son of Greidawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of (G)ogfran the Giant
I mention this because throughout the book we actually come to learn of four Gwens – the three wedded queens and Gwenhwyfach the deceiver. All these women play parts big and small in the life of our own Gwen and also help bring to life the legend we are all familiar with. It also explains how legend can have it that she had no children, two children or one child.
As mentioned above, our Gwen is a warrior, and also a practitioner of the old ways. Her ability to believe in magic, and her family’s strong ties to the folk of Annwn play a big part in how she handles her job as war chief and later as a member of Arthur’s court. The author skillfully weaves every skill we see Gwen learn, every step any Gwenhwyfar takes and the history of the combined woman into a rich tale of a pivotal time in England’s history. She breathes life into familiar characters, showing us new and interesting sides to them that are quite unexpected. The characterizations are very well done, by the way; each person in this story feels very much like a real person. You get an excellent feel for what they were thinking and why, as well as the reason for their actions. Lackey also does an excellent job with continuity – nobody had sudden epiphanies just to move the action along.
I liked that there was a hint of politics to the whole thing. A king is a politician, even if not an elected one, and this had to have played a huge role in life at Camelot. The author does an excellent job of capturing that facet without overwhelming the story with it.
I loved how the tale of Lancelin and Gwen is handled and most especially how it ended. Some will disagree with me in that regard, but I found it so perfectly in keeping with the way the characters had been presented previously that I felt complete satisfaction with it.
I did have some struggles with the story. While I understood Gwen’s fascination with warriors and war horses, I wasn’t comfortable with her parents allowing her to follow that path. It seemed an odd decision to make when the girl was so clearly gifted in another, needed area. Perhaps this was character building, to show us that Gwen’s life would be ruled by decisions that were both right and wrong at the same time, but it felt off from the parental perspective. It also added a bit of tedium to the tale as we spent a lot of time with horses and weaponry, not very exciting subject matter.
My other complaint is that Gwen knew her enemies, knew what they were capable of and yet seemed taken by surprise by them nonetheless. Given that she had actually been warned about one of them several times and she knew what another was like from the beginning, it felt odd that she wouldn’t have been more proactive against them. I know that legend dictated their success in certain things, but I would have liked that to be a hard-fought success, not one that everyone just allowed to happen.
I would recommend this book to anyone who love’s Arthurian legend or someone simply looking for a really good tale within that time period. It is not a romance in the HEA sense, but it does a lovely job of capturing the history of a time and place that is steeped in romantic lore.