Monday, November 22, 2010


Persia Wooley
Historical Fiction
Sourcebooks, November 2010 (reissue)

Premise: Princess Guinevere moves from childhood in the harsh realm of Rheged to bride of High King Arthur of Camelot.

Cover: Title: Not very informative in itself, but makes more sense when put together with 'Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy' and 'The Legend Begins....' subtitle. Art: Very pretty with dull moss green background and leaf accents which do an excellent job of highlighting the silver foil font and lovely image of a classical painting. Overall: well done, eye-catching.

What Works: When Apprentice Writer first discovered Mary Stewart's trilogy of the Arthurian legend as told through the eyes of Merlin the Sorcerer ('The Crystal Cave', 'The Hollow Hills', 'The Last Enchantment'), she was indeed enchanted by the power of the story and the author's marvelous writing. Both hold up to rereading many years later. She was less enamored of Marion Zimmer Bradley multi-POV version in 'The Mists of Avalon '. So it seemed Persia Wooley's approach could go either way.

AW was pleased to find that she enjoyed this variation (or more accurately, the first third of it) very much. Seeing developments through the eyes of Guinevere - female, without magical gifts, raised with expectations of high work ethic and duty consciousness despite well-born status, surrounded by wellwishers from birth yet unspoiled, natural, and likable - rather than through the eyes of Merlin - male, with supernatural powers, raised without physical ease or affection, brilliant, mercurial and a lifelong outsider - gave the story an entirely different feel, rhythm, and emphasis.

The author is skilled in bringing the Dark Age of Britain to vivid and compelling life. Alongside the protagonists, the reader is swept into a time when daily life was more elemental: poor weather means reduced harvest means starvation in winter; lower birth rate or unusual illness means fewer defenders during border skirmishes means possible takeover of the kingdom and being carried off into slavery; etc. It was fascinating to see how logically this very low margin for error meant that different spiritual beliefs - including those we can recognize as superstitions now, but were considered a matter of life-or-death urgency then - permeated individual and community life. The way that Christianity made inroads into an island filled with Druid culture and references to magical and fae beings was another interesting facet to the story.

The very fact that the main brushstrokes of the legend are so well-known (no one is going to be surprised at the love triangle, the infertility, the fact that ambitions compatriots throw obstacles in the way) piques the reader's curiosity as to a 'new' author's taken on when and how to weave in the first mention and then first appearance of each main character. It was cleverly done in this book, with Lancelot's name mentioned far in advance of any actual screen time, and more intriguingly the Lady of the Lake with her soothing and lyrical name in such contrast with sinister-seeming first mention in Guinevere's childhood. Good anticipation-planting.

What Doesn't
The author engages in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards in the beginning of the book, between the time of Guinevere's departure from home to marry Arthur and childhood scenes that brought her to that point. Presumably this was done to create a sense of heightened drama, but for this reader, it was an unneccessary and distracting tactic. AW would have preferred the tried and true simple chronological approach better.

This is also a book better suited to readers who appreciate a gradual buildup rather than a lots of action and high narrative tension throughout; this is only the first installment in the trilogy, so many of the 'meaty' developments so well-known of the legend are not touched on yet here. AW had no problem with this, but mentions it so that the gentle reader would be aware and can make her/his own decision accordingly.

A lovely addition to the library of historical fiction enthusiasts,
a nightstand occupant which no-one would be embarrassed to be caught with,
a gift candidate for book-lovers on the gentle reader's holiday list.

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