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Review: ‘Gwenhwyfar’ by Mercedes Lackey

December 18, 2010

The days of King Arthur are at hand.  The petty kings of Britain have come together to serve a High King, and Arthur is as brilliant as can be expected.  With the Merlin at his side, it seems he cannot lose.

But Gwenhwyfar, princess of the kingdom Pwyll in Wales, is only a child when Arthur gains his throne.  Gwenhwyfar grows up as a privileged and well-loved daughter along with her three sisters.  When the warrior Braith tells the king that Gwen has the touch of the goddess Epona upon her, Gwen gets her long-held wish to be trained as a horsewoman and a warrior.  In exchange, Gwenhwyfar must give up the very strong talent she has for magic and her future place among the Ladies of the Well, much to her mother’s disappointment.  But Gwen is a fast learner and a hard worker, and her mother comes around when Gwenhwyfar only does her parents credit.

As Gwen grows older, she becomes a renowned warrior among her kingdom, and the best scout her father has in his army.  She fights the Saxons with her men and protects her lands.  It is during those skirmishes that she earns her nickname, the White Spirit, when she terrorizes the Saxons with clever tricks to make them believe they saw spirits and phantoms.  She also meets Lancelin, one of Arthur’s Companions and knights, and although not handsome, something about Lancelin intrigues and fascinated the younger Gwenhwyfar.

Meanwhile, Arthur has married twice and lost both wives, both of whom were also named Gwenhwyfar.  The first wife died in childbirth.  The second wife betrays Arthur with infidelity.  And after a time of mourning, Gwenhwyfar and her father receive a visit from the Ladies of the Well, with a proposition for them both…Gwenhwyfar as Arthur’s third wife.

My Thoughts:

Some places are a little slow, especially in the chapters closer to the beginning.  But seeing as the information is necessary to plot and character development, I can’t see any other way Lackey could have included the information.

Other than a few slow spots, I found this book to be an enjoyable read.  Gwenhwyfar is admirable and mostly likable.  She knows what she wants and goes after it.  This version of Guinevere is very much different from the usual idea of Guinevere.  I think many people see Arthur’s Guinevere as the epitome of femininity, beauty, and royalty, as well as a terrible betrayer when she commits adultery with Lancelot.  That tends to be the version everyone identifies.  But Lackey’s version is not queenly or ultimately feminine at all.  She would rather spend her time fighting or training horses than sewing fine embroidery in her bower with her ladies.  This drastic difference is part of what makes Lackey’s rendering of the Arthurian legend so intriguing.  It is a refreshing change to a legend that has been reinterpreted so many times it runs the risk of being done to death.

The characterizations of Arthurian characters are very well done.  The portrayal of Arthur as a husband is less than forgiving, which in my mind is a refreshing and welcome change from the usual depiction of him as the perfect king as well as husband.  He is aloof, apathetic, and sometimes even downright cruel, and Lackey does not give any leeway for Arthur in his relationship with Gwen.  Gwen comes off as the strong partner by far, as well as the more righteous–which, given her adultery, is unusual.  However, it works because of how Lackey has written these two characters.

As for Lancelin (Lancelot), I can’t say I care for him too much.  He appeals to Gwen because of his fighting prowess and his kind nature, but aside from those qualities I don’t find much to consider endearing in his almost sycophantic hero-worship of Arthur.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this rendering of Arthurian legend.  Lackey did her research but used a great deal of her imagination and her own suppositions in writing this tale, which makes the story richer and fuller than if she had strictly rewritten previous tales (well, duh).  I feel pretty confident that I would read this story again.  I give it four stars–taking away a star only for the slow spots, which were a problem for me but may not be for other readers.

Buy on Amazon * Author’s Info * GoodReads

Book info: 404 pages, published 2009, ISBN 9780756406295

Copy is from personal library

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