Tag: Arthurian


Review – The Sunbird

Posted 18 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Sunbird by Elizabeth E. WeinThe Sunbird, Elizabeth E. Wein

Flashback Friday review from 12th February, 2011

I think I liked The Sunbird best of the series so far. It goes even further from Arthurian myth — the only character from the Arthurian canon is Medraut — but in the process makes an enchanting narrative. Young Telemakos is growing up and showing all signs of inheriting his father’s ability to stalk prey, but he uses his skills politically.

The story of his search for the figure called the Lazarus, and what happens to him there, are compelling. The darkness from the other stories remains here. Telemakos is a very strong character, almost unbelievably so, and yet still believably a child, too. The reactions of the other characters to what happens to him feels real and shocking, and is well-handled.

Medraut as a character develops further here, into someone one can like, or at least sympathise with a little — largely divorced from the Arthurian canon, by this point.

Again, it’s easy to read, well-written, but there are parts at which the soft-hearted will struggle.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Posted 7 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Acts of King Arthur by John SteinbeckThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

Flashback Friday review from 11th October, 2010

Steinbeck’s Arthur novel was never completed, and never even properly edited by him. I enjoyed it very much as it is — I do wish it’d been finished, and edited, and made more consistent. If I rated without considering that, I’d rate it at least one star less. The introduction, claiming that it isn’t changed substantially from Malory, isn’t true: there’s a lot of humanising going on, and some additional humour. If I held Steinbeck to that, too, he’d probably lose a star.

As it is, though, bearing these things in mind, he gets all the stars. I really enjoyed reading his version, particularly after the first few tales — it felt like, after a while, he felt his way into it, and some of the letters of his included at the end suggest that that’s just how it felt to him, which is nice to know. There’s a sort of tenderness in the way he treats the tales, a love for them that still allowed him to see the humour a modern audience might find in them.

I liked his treatment of Kay — a little more understanding than other writers, I think. An attempt to understand him. And the touch of someone catching Arthur crying, which I don’t recall being in Malory. And some of the descriptions of Lancelot, particularly through Lyonel’s eyes. And here was a Lancelot I could like, too, although of course Steinbeck never got to the parts where Lancelot was a traitor. Still, I felt for Lancelot, in the last few pages.

(For those who know of my affection for Gawain: no, I don’t like his portrayal of Gawain. But I’ll pass that over.)

One thing I love specially is something that people tend to find lacking in Malory — knowing what people are feeling, and I’m particularly talking about Lancelot. Malory tells us what he does; Steinbeck tries to tell us why.

And the thing I love best, oh, most of all, is this:

The queen observed, “I gather you rescued damsels by the dozen.” She put her fingers on his arm and a searing shock ran through his body, and his mouth opened in amazement at a hollow ache that pressed upwards against his ribs and shortened his breath.

My breath, too.

It’s rare because it’s a moment that really makes me feel for Lancelot and Guinevere, and for their plight. I think Steinbeck could have caught me up in their story, and hushed my dislike for all they do. I wish he’d written it: I’d like, just once, to be swept up in Lancelot and Guinevere’s story, and to buy into it as somehow justified by passion, just as they do. Other writers tell that without showing me it. (Guy Gavriel Kay perhaps excepted, but Lancelot and Guinevere aren’t the centre of the story he’s telling there.)

I enjoyed it a lot, what there is of it, and this edition also contains a lot of Steinbeck’s letters concerning it while he was writing it. Very interesting to read those and get an idea of what was on his mind.

I think part of what I love here is what the stories could have been, more than what they are.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Exiled from Camelot

Posted 22 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Exiled from Camelot by Cherith BaldryExiled from Camelot, Cherith Baldry

Originally reviewed 3rd October, 2012

I can’t remember who recommended me this, but bless you, whoever you were. It was definitely useful for my dissertation, as well as an enjoyable book. Kay-wise, it has an interesting mix of portrayals — the Loholt plotline is from the Cymric material, as far as I can gather, and yet Arthur’s position in the court is very much that of the continental stories. Hmm.

You know how I said Sword at Sunset was homosocial? I think Exiled from Camelot was even more so: it’s all about the bonds between the men of the Table — strained as they are, it’s clear that one has to hope for them all coming together and sorting things out. The bond between Kay and Arthur is so intense that it really excludes any other relationship for Kay: I did like that, though at times I did find myself questioning whether Cherith Baldry thought at all about authenticity. Kay does a lot of grovelling and crying, and acting like a coward, and yet it’s all waved away by the other characters — not likely, I would think, in a culture where merely calling Lancelot a coward is an invitation to a duel…

But whatever, I suspended my disbelief. My two main problems were Brisane — oh can we be more typical, with an evil woman who was rejected by men and sold her soul for power and used her body to gain more? — and Arthur being, well, stupid. He was so easily taken in, so easily led. Headdesk.

Still, more or less carried off, though it’s likely to wear thinner the more I think about it. Ultimately, it distracted me from any such flaws when I was reading it, which is the main thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sword at Sunset

Posted 15 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Sword at Sunset by Rosemary SutcliffSword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff

Originally posted 24th February, 2011

I didn’t think I was going to like Sword at Sunset as much as I typically like Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, even though it was surely combining two of my favourite things — Sutcliff’s writing and realism, and Arthurian myth. It began slowly, I think, and it was a surprising change of tone for Sutcliff — her books are mainly written for children (of any age!), but this book had decidedly adult themes, with the incest and more explicit references to sexuality than I’d expected. It’s also unusual for her in that it’s written in first person, and narrated by Arthur himself.

It also, to my surprise, had a couple of LGBT themes — a gay couple among Arthur’s men, to begin with, and then the relationship between himself and Bedwyr. There’s no Lancelot here, and Bedwyr takes that place in many ways, but with more of a shown relationship than I’ve ever found typical between Arthur and Lancelot. It brought tears to my eyes several times, especially this moment: “I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms around his shoulders.”

There’s nothing explicit about them, at all, but their bond has a profoundness about it, even after hurt and betrayal, that defies easy categorisation.

The relationship between Arthur and Guinevere is also an interesting one, and again one that makes no shortcuts using the existing myth, but builds up something believable alone. His relationship with her, the odd barriers between them, and the attempts to reach each other, and their love that isn’t quite enough to bridge that gap… It’s all believable.

The whole book takes some pains to be believable, emotionally, and historically. The themes, characters, etc, all seem to have some explanations for how the story could develop later… Bedwyr somewhat in the place that Lancelot takes later, Medraut almost exactly as he will be later, the moment in which Arthur realises how the badge he chooses for battle will be translated into that text which talks about him carrying the image of the Virgin Mary… And they’re all aware of how the stories will be magnified, too. It’s an interesting way to put it.

Oh, and I forgot to mention it when I first wrote this review, but I was fascinated by Gwalchmai, despite his relatively minor role. It’s odd: he isn’t related to Arthur (one of the constants of the Arthurian tradition more generally), and though he is a fighter, his main role is that of surgeon. He’s also disabled. I don’t think I’ve seen a portrayal of Gawain/Gwalchmai quite like this anywhere else.

It took me a while to get into Sword at Sunset, but it was worth trusting Rosemary Sutcliff and going with it.

Rating: 5/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 5 July, 2016 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

This week’s theme is ‘Top Ten Underrated Books’ — books with less than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. Some of these only have a handful of ratings, though some are more popular; I tried to pick a range, because if I just picked the most underrated books it’d all be Welsh fiction, and y’all probably wouldn’t be that interested. (But if you are, go forth and read Kate Roberts, Rhys Davies, Menna Gallie, Margiad Evans…)

  1. The Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers. A biography of R.S. Thomas, this was a lovely mix of fact and rather chatty character portrait: it makes R.S. Thomas come alive, as a man of contradictions and contrasts.
  2. The Hidden Landscape, Richard Fortey. Or any of Fortey’s books, really; something about his style made even geology fascinating to me, and I’m not actually that interested in geology. There’s a poetry to the landscape and the long shaping of it which Fortey sees and communicates very clearly.
  3. Cold Night Lullaby, Colin Mackay. Only read this collection of poetry if you want your heart to be ripped from your chest. It covers the poet’s experiences in Sarajevo as an aid worker, and inspired Karine Polwart’s song ‘Waterlily’. The video here includes Polwart’s introduction to Mackay’s life and work.
  4. Dead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan. Painful in a different way, this book follows the recovery of a man returned to his Welsh village after the Great War. There’s a touch of magic realism, but the emotional heart of the story is very real.
  5. A Sorcerer’s Treason, Sarah Zettel. I haven’t read this in ages, and in fact need to reread it, but I remember it very fondly — and remember passing it round to various friends and relations, hence why my partner has a stack of this series tempting me to reread now…
  6. A Taste of Blood Wine, Freda Warrington. I really didn’t expect to fall so in love with a gothic vampire romance, but it’s so unapologetic about examining the effects of the vampires and the way they choose to live on the people around them that I fell for it all the same. I think fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books would probably be a good fit.
  7. Iron and Gold, Hilda Vaughan. A classic fairytale situation, in a Welsh setting; it humanises the fairytale, making the pain of it really hit you, while also examining human relationships and how they work.
  8. The Complete Brandstetter, Joseph Hansen. I’ve been amazed at how little I’ve ever heard about these books since my housemate wrote a dissertation on gay detectives in crime fiction. It deals with so many issues — AIDs, racial issues, homophobia, and beyond that into aging, relationships in general… and also delivers solid story after solid story.
  9. Exiled From Camelot, Cherith Baldry. I read this for my own dissertation, which probably accounts for how fond I am of it. It’s not perfect, but the bond between Arthur and Kay is painfully real (and something often neglected in other modern fiction). It’s also an interesting mixture of materials, with stuff straight from both the Welsh sources and the much later Continental tradition.
  10. The Fox’s Tower, and Other Tales, Yoon Ha Lee. I love microfiction, and this is one of the few collections I can think of which I would fairly whole-heartedly recommend. Yoon Ha Lee gets the art of the really short story.

I’ll be interested to see what other people have picked out this week — especially if you talk a bit about why. Link me!

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Review – The Wicked Day

Posted 7 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Wicked Day by Mary StewartThe Wicked Day, Mary Stewart

Arrrghhh, this book! Okay, on the good side: Stewart knew the Arthurian material well and handled it with confidence, often bringing in small details in ways which were a delight to spot (but which didn’t particularly harm the narrative if you didn’t spot them). And it’s an interesting take on Mordred: a loyal son to Arthur, once he knows about it, taking up much the same sort of relationship as between Merlin and Ambrosius, or Arthur and Merlin. His emotions are for the most part really well done: his ambition, his determination, how he fights against his fate and ultimately serves it.

But. Arthur. In the last quarter or so of The Wicked Day, Stewart breaks her entire previous characterisation for Arthur. He becomes irrational, forgets who he can trust, takes advice from the wrong people — ignores the advice of people like Nimue, whose power comes from Merlin. He forgets what’s important — forgets important plans that he made — and just gives way to suspicion and slander. He endangers everything, and for what? For suspicions that just chapters before he knew were unfounded.

The way I read it, Stewart broke her own story’s backbone by insisting that everyone (except the women) remain blameless. She didn’t want to blame Arthur or Mordred or Bedwyr, so she palmed some of it off on Gawain’s rash nature, some of it on Mordred’s latent ambition, and… some on Arthur being an idiot in ways he hasn’t been at any other point in the series. She couldn’t resist heaping calumny on the women: Morgause committed incest knowingly with her brother, and then wanted to commit incest again with the son born of that union. What the hell? The other books well-established Stewart’s near-inability to handle the women of the Arthurian mythos (more surprising given the relatively active and capable heroines of her mystery/romances), but this is just… desperate. It reeks of pushing everything off onto the female characters, but she had to do it because she decided that it “didn’t make sense” for Mordred and Arthur to do things they do in some branches of the mythos — in some kind of wrong-headed attempt to marry it all together, or to follow the example of others (cough, Malory) who didn’t manage to bring it all together. It just won’t go.

And I can kind of get it. I did enjoy the little references I noticed, for example to other sons of Arthur. We want to admire the Arthurian heroes, and we want the best of all of them: the just and strong king, the heroic seneschal, etc, etc. (And I was badly served in this, since Gawain is an impetuous idiot given to murder in this version, and also my favourite knight in the general mythology.) But Stewart tried to get everyone out ‘alive’, or at least their reputations (few of them actually survive, which is kind of a relief given the contortions she went through in The Last Enchantment to keep Merlin alive), and that… doesn’t work.

It’s so frustrating, partially because I get the impulse, and I liked the relationship between Arthur and Mordred here. The treatment of women aside, I quite enjoyed the first three quarters, or even four-fifths. But. But. Stewart broke her own story and characterisation because she couldn’t make a hard decision, as far as I can see, and the story is critically weakened by it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Last Enchantment

Posted 7 March, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Last Enchantment by Mary StewartThe Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment really suffers the most from the fact that it’s written from the point of view of a supporting character. Merlin’s an epic, iconic figure, but he’s not Arthur — and this version emphasises this even more, with Arthur’s seemingly endless heroism, patience, temperance and sensitivity. I love the Arthurian story too, but it feels like Stewart shielded almost all the characters from harm — even, in this case, some of the female characters, despite the misogynistic to ambiguous treatment in the rest of the series. She has surprising sympathy for Guinevere, particularly, considering she had no mercy for Morgause.

Stewart weaves in an astonishing number of the disparate stories — the two Guineveres, Nimue/Niniane/Vivien, Melwas, etc — but, almost because of that, it lacks richness to me. It feels like everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, especially with the way she shields her characters from the consequences; we’ve got Nimue and Merlin in a love story, and Nimue does indeed bury Merlin alive, and yet she didn’t mean to. And Merlin is buried alive and ‘dies’ there, but… he doesn’t die.

The writing is still good, and it was entertaining enough, but… this series falls short of excellence.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Camelot’s Blood

Posted 19 February, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Camelot's Blood by Sarah ZettelCamelot’s Blood, Sarah Zettel
Originally reviewed in February 2010

I really love this book. I don’t remember how strongly I felt about it the first time, but I have a thing for second sons in fiction, second sons like Agravain — the quieter, grimmer ones, the dutiful ones with their hidden passions and their determinations. Agravain is a perfect example, and it’s also interesting that in this story, he and Laurel fall in love after their marriage, which comes of necessity and politics more than anything else. The four romances are much more differentiated than I remembered. In this one, I genuinely felt pain for Agravain and Laurel when they were separated, which is possibly because I found their situation more real.

The romance is still a little hurried in places, but I do like what we get of it. I also love the magic of this — Laurel’s magic, as she becomes unafraid and throws herself into it, doing what she has to do. I like how a lot of hints come together — the stain on Guinevere’s palm, for one thing, just that one tiny repeated detail finally finding meaning and explanation. Not something I noticed, on a single reading.

I found this somewhat unsatisfying as an end, the last time I read it. Morgaine is defeated, but Mordred is not killed, he flees. Reading it again, his defeat is pretty conclusive, and he runs like a child, but mostly I’m reminded of the fact that it’s still prophesied that he will bring down Camelot, and the threat of him isn’t neutralised at all. In one way, ending like this is very appropriate, because the quartet follows the sons of Lot, not the court of Arthur — but the court of Arthur and the importance of Arthur’s kingdom is important throughout the books, so it’s kind of odd that it ends without a real conclusion for that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Camelot’s Sword

Posted 12 February, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Camelot's Sword, by Sarah ZettelCamelot’s Sword, Sarah Zettel
Originally reviewed in February 2010

I’m liking all of these books in my second reading. It’s interesting to see all the different threads of Arthurian myth and Celtic myth brought together in this way — this book especially weaves so many things together: Tristan and Iseult, Lyonesse (Laurel) and Lynet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Morgaine, the Celtic Otherworld… I think I’m focusing a lot more on that, in this reading, instead of on the romance — which isn’t actually as central as I thought. It could do with more time spent on it, actually, because Gareth’s transformation from a womaniser into Lynet’s faithful knight is very hasty and not really given the time and space it should be. Perhaps the scene on the moor could’ve been expanded — another fifty pages would probably have made the love story much more engaging and satisfying. There were some parts of the relationship with Ryol that were glossed over a bit too much — that was closer to the centre of the story, I think, and didn’t suffer too much, but there were a few places where I wondered why the heck it was happening like that. For example, how did Guinevere figure out that the mirror was the problem? Whence came her sudden decision to confiscate it?

One thing that is becoming clear to me is that the relationships aren’t as cookie-cutter as I thought, my first time through. The relationships between Gawain and Rhian, Geraint and Elen, Gareth and Lynet… they’re much more distinct than I thought at first, and the brothers are less alike than they thought at first. I’m not sure why I thought them so cookie-cutter the first time through, actually. Possibly because all the romance is that bit hastier than I’d like. Possibly I’m a slightly more discerning reader. Possibly my taste has just changed!

I really wish this book had received a little more attention from a proofreader. The little nags I have about grammar and punctuation are really little. For the most part I like the writing. But it’s so distracting to keep thinking, “But where is the comma?”

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Camelot’s Honour

Posted 5 February, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Camelot's Honour by Sarah ZettelCamelot’s Honour, Sarah Zettel

Originally reviewed in February 2010

The first time I read this series, I wasn’t all that impressed. There are still things I’m not so keen on — the love at first sight, for one thing, doesn’t ring very true, and also the books could do with better proofreading. There’s punctuation missing, and I’m pretty sure “grieves” and “greaves” don’t mean the same thing. But, this time, I found myself a lot more interested. I preferred Geraint to Gawain, I think, and I was interested in him and his feelings about his relationship to Morgaine, and his way of dealing with his legacy from his father — and his love for Elen.

I don’t know if the story of Elen and Geraint is based on any legend, Arthurian or otherwise, although I suspect that the story of Gwiffert, at least, has some kind of link to existing mythology. Still, it’s nice to see a lot of mythology together and coupled to the Arthurian mythology, to make something new. The ongoing story of Morgaine is interesting, too: I can’t actually remember very well how that’s resolved, and I forgot that she seemed genuinely in love with Urien.

I originally didn’t like Elen much, but there is something compelling about her, too, and her struggle, and Collanau. I wished the book had more about the Lord, the Lady, and Elen’s family. As far as I remember, the Lord and the Lady don’t come into it again, which is a shame.

(Erec and Enide is, of course, where I think this comes from. It doesn’t follow it directly in plot, but I think the idea of the bird came from there.)

[Note in 2016: I know much more about the various sources now — The Mabinogion is a big one.]

Rating: 4/5

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