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.
Camelot’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.
Camelot’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?”
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.]
The formatting of this was less than ideal on my Kindle, since I think it’s a proofing copy and thus there were numbers all through the document, and bizarre sections with no paragraph breaks, and all sorts of fun things like that. I did read some of it on my computer, which was better in one way, but not the most comfortable way to read either. In a way, I wish I hadn’t read this now, despite my eagerness for it — there’s a thread of McKillip’s usual enchantment and strangeness here, but I’m pretty sure that some of the odd moments were just caused by the formatting. Not really experienced as the author intended, I think.
I don’t know to what extent I’m typical of the audience for this book. To me, the Arthurian influence was immediately apparent — the Fisher King, some of the names (Vivienne?), the relationship between Sir Leith and Queen Ginevra, the king Arden. The strange ceremony, the issue of someone outside the ritual needing to ask, the grail-like object. Pierce’s story is almost like that of Percival, and yet not always, not quite. At least, not a version I know. It felt all askew, because I know the Arthurian versions so well, and particularly because I really don’t like the Percival story, in general. I don’t like it when he’s Welsh and ignorant, and yet at the same time I don’t like his Welsh background being ignored either. The grail story just loses me entirely, in general, even when it’s closer to the Welsh sources than to Chrétien’s.
On the other hand, I love McKillip’s work a lot. She does magic and enchantment so well, and writes so beautifully. That is certainly in evidence here as much as ever. She makes something interesting and different of the old stories, of the grail-seeking. I felt like the Severluna/Calluna stuff never quite worked itself out fully — it seemed a fairly typical god/goddess dichotomy/conflict, complete with god-obsessed young men making nuisances of themselves to older/feminine magics. I wanted more, something different. Stranger? Stranger is a good word for what McKillip usually manages.
The Stillwater character and what he did was interesting — very classically mythological, and yet fresh too. It took me some time to fit that into the plot, because it’s not an intrinsic part of the Arthurian story — perhaps one reason why someone less familiar with the legends might enjoy this more. I always find myself playing puzzle pieces with Arthurian stories, or even ones that’re just inspired by Arthuriana.
I don’t know how to assess it, at the end of all this. For holding me rapt despite misgivings, I think I’m going to go ahead and give it four stars, “really liked it”. In an ambivalent, intrigued sort of way.
Since I’m hoping that the module on King Arthur will run next year [note in 2016: it did], and reading widely in the tradition helped me with the Robin Hood module, I decided to revisit these books. As I said in my review almost two years ago, I’m not really one for romance books, generally, but these are Arthurian — which helps a lot, since it’s something I’m always interested in — and they’re not exactly bodice-rippers, and I do like Sarah Zettel’s writing. There’s genuinely a plot alongside the romance — at least in this first book of the four — and earlier elements of the tradition are woven into the story, while it’s also not quite a carbon copy. It could have deviated more from the tradition, easily, and perhaps been more engaging then, but this is interesting enough. I like the portrayal of Guinevere, very much in love with Arthur, and though she’s mischievous, she’s a good queen. If I remember rightly, the betrayal of Arthur with Lancelot isn’t re-enacted in this quartet, which I quite like. That’s something new. And I like this portrayal of Gawain, as compared to some quite loutish ones I’ve read before.
It’s interesting how close it sticks to the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I’m doing a module on at the moment. I hadn’t read that the first time I read this, so I didn’t really appreciate how it had taken that plot but also woven in the women, Rhian and Kerra, and how it’s also woven in the story of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell — which I haven’t read, but I know a decent amount about.
It’s nice that there’s an overarching plot to these four romances, with the figure of Morgaine, about whom we learn little in this book. It’s also nice that they’re romances in both the medieval sense and the modern sense. At least, it is for my inner geek.
I somewhat put off reviewing The Grey King after finishing reading it, because I’m not sure what there is to say about it anymore. I’ve rhapsodised about it at length: the use of mythology, the casual use of the Welsh language, the home-ness of the landscape and the people… The shades of grey and the adult touches when it comes to Owen Davies and John Rowlands, and Will Stanton’s interactions with them. There’s some beautiful passages, especially the section spent in Craig yr Aderyn, and some genuine moments of horror, loss, anger, fear…
And there’s Bran Davies. One of the first Welsh heroes I came across in fiction — at the age of sixteen or so. And he really is Welsh; Welsh-speaking, Welsh-thinking, a part of the Welsh landscape and mythology. But he’s also very human — vulnerable. Angry. Resentful, even. Strange and unhappy and alone. And then his friendship with Will is just lovely, the immediate rapport between them, the ways Will being an Old One damages it, the ways Bran adapts.
And there’s Cafall. All too briefly, but so key to the plot, to Bran.
There’s quite a lot of more adult themes here — quite far from the world of Over Sea, Under Stone, which is almost entirely concerned with Barney, Jane and Simon. There’s Owen’s grief for Gwen; Gwen’s grief at betraying her husband; the jealousy and rivalry between Owen Davies and Caradog Prichard; Arthur’s yearning for connection with his son… And of course, those shades of grey I mentioned. The conversation between John and Will about how the Light will ignore the good of a single person to pursue the greater good, and John’s reaction, really highlights to me that the humans are the real heroes of this series. And the villains, too, because Lords of the Dark choose to become what they are — they aren’t born, like Old Ones.
This week’s theme is “Ten Characters You Just Didn’t Click With” and actually, I’m having a bit of trouble thinking of it. Okay, here goes…
Jill Pole and Prince Rillian from The Silver Chair. Actually, most of the characters in the last two books. They just didn’t have the magic, somehow.
Prince Sameth, Lirael & Abhorsen. Compared to their mother, both him and Ellimere are just weak tea. He spends so much time denying his responsibilities, where his mother just took it all on and never dreamed of saying no. In a way, it’s a more realistic characterisation, but gah, so much whining.
Elvira, from Half a Crown. I love most of Jo Walton’s characters, but Elvira’s concerns seemed so far away from the concerns of the more mature characters we’ve already spent time with.
Boromir, from The Lord of the Rings. I know he’s actually a good guy at heart, and we see the evil power of the Ring twisting him, but there was something so glory-seeking and self-centered about the guy, especially when compared to Faramir.
Malta Vestrit, from The Liveship Traders trilogy. Ohh my god, so spoilt. And it doesn’t really get better even as she begins to grow up; I never liked her. Mind you, a lot of the characters in this trilogy were very dislikeable, to me.
Miriamele, from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Speaking of spoilt characters…
Jaelle, from The Summer Tree. I never felt like I really understood the character, and I wanted more out of her.
Katsa, from Graceling. I know! She’s pretty kickass, but I never really connected with the character. It’s why I didn’t like it that much the first time I tried it.
Lancelot, in anything. Almost the sole exception is Heather Dale’s music and parts of Steinbeck’s retelling of Malory.
Dorian Havilliard, Throne of Glass. Actually, I didn’t really ‘get’ either love interest in the first book, but Chaol is growing on me. Dorian… there are some aspects I’m liking, but in the first book, he really didn’t win me over.
I tried to pick books I liked, in general, and characters who are not meant to be villains. I’ll be interested to see what other takes people have on this theme!
I was so eager to read this one, because I love Ishiguro’s writing and I love Sir Gawain, who I knew appears in this book. He’s not actually the main character (but then, he rarely is), but he is an essential part of the story, which unfolds steadily as you read. There’s a fog drifting across the memories of both Saxons and Britons, keeping them from remembering events both recent and further away; this same fog clouds the memories of an elderly man and his wife, who set out to find their son.
It’s quite a mysterious story, because of that fogginess; things get revealed slowly, things come together piece by piece. I think people who gave up on it, while justified if they weren’t enjoying it, can’t really grasp how this all comes together. There is a point to all of the little conflicts, all the repeated conversations, all the interactions. It ends as a meditation on death, memory, relationships… and to me, it was touching.
I enjoy Ishiguro’s style, and continued to do so here. I don’t really have a quibble with the pacing, because though it lost other people, it seems to work for me. But I can’t get behind this version of Sir Gawain… He’s not too bad in the end, and yet one or two things he does… nope. Not my Gawain.
The Darkest Road, Guy Gavriel Kay Originally reviewed 26th January, 2012
No matter how many times I read them, these books still make me cry, and more, they still have me reading late into the night, breathless and stunned. I know what’s going to happen, but that doesn’t take any of the poignancy out of it. Of the three books, this is the strongest: the best prose, the best action, the best images, the best in all the characters. He draws everything together do well, and puts the readers’ hearts through a blender without caring how much they’re undoubtedly cursing him.
(I seem to recall calling him a ‘magnificent, glorious bastard’ the last time I read it, and my other half agrees. No one can accuse Kay of being too gentle with his characters. He’s one of the few writers who can be ruthless. Tolkien’s work, dark as it can be, holds back from killing off the characters we love, and thus makes them less mortal, less fragile, and less dear.)
I still think that Kay sucks at building romance stories up. I believe in the established love of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere — and fresh from reading The Mists of Avalon, I find myself thinking that Kay wasn’t simply talking of loyalty to a lord when he wrote of Lancelot’s love for Arthur — and in that of Sharra and Diarmuid. Kim and Dave, Jaelle and Paul, though…
I’m pretty sure I’ll return to these books again, and find the same shining delight again.