Growing up in a Britain where the old ways are being supplanted by the influence of Christianity, Gwenhwyfar moves in a world where the old gods still walk among their pagan worshippers, where nebulous visions warn of future perils, and where there are two paths for a woman, the traditional path of the Blessing, or the rarer path of the Warrior.
Gwenhwyfar, the third daughter of a Celtic king, has always been the child most blessed with the power of the Goddess. But Gwen is spellbound by her father’s beautiful warhorses, and dreams of driving a war chariot for the glory of her father. encouraged by the king, who has no sons and loves the idea of one of his daughters becoming his most valued warrior, Gwen is allowed to learn some of the rudimentary ways of war. But as soon as Gwen begins this training, it becomes evident that the way of the warrior is the princess’ true fate.
Yet the daughter of a king is never truly free to follow her own calling and all is not well at the court of the High King Arthur. In an attempt to unify the Celtic tribes under his Christian dominion he seeks a wife from the lands of the far west.
When Gwenhwyfar is chosen, she bows to circumstances to become Arthur’s queen – only to find herself facing temptation and treachery, intrigue and betrayal, but also love and redemption.
When I found out Mercedes Lackey had a book out on the legendary Queen Guinevere, I was interested to see Lackey’s take on the Arthurian saga. Having had a period in my teens where I devoured Arthurian retellings and having taken a class on the literary Arthur at university, I have a weak spot for Arthuriana and to combine that with a book by one of my favourite authors seemed a guaranteed case of win. And it was a lovely read indeed. I like the angle she took. It is a very different approach from any I’ve read before and, as I said, I’ve read a lot of Arthur retellings. She even had me hoping for a happy ending, but of course that would have been too great a departure from the source matter. And to be honest, had she gone there, while it might have been emotionally satisfying at the time, it would have made me dislike the book after, so I am glad she didn’t change the ending.
I liked Lackey’s Gwen. She takes a different path, but is still honoured. She also accepts the consequences of her choice without too much whinging. Of course there is regret, especially when she finally meets someone who gets past her armour and is told that to (most) men she can either be a woman or a warrior, but she can’t be both. But after a tantrum and a bit of a rant, she just goes on with her life and doesn’t hang about pining. Gwen’s a character more in the vein of Boudicca than of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Ladies of the Lake. Her natural touch with horses and her aptitude for sword work mark as Blessed by Epona and of course match a lot of Lackey’s other heroines such as Kerowyn and Elspeth. That might be my only problem with Gwen as a character and at the same time be why I like her so much; she reminds me very much of some of my favourite Lackey characters, but I’m not certain whether it is not a case of too much or just enough.
Surprisingly, Arthur, Lancelin and the rest of his knights, except for Medraut, are kept mostly in the background. They are there and their actions influence events in the novel, but the story is wholly Gwen’s even after she goes off to Arthur’s court at about two-thirds into the novel. Yes, Arthur and Lancelin are catalysts and powerful characters plot wise, but Gwen’s world (and character) doesn’t revolve around them as is so often the case in Arthurian literature. In the same way, the Fae and the Otherworld play a role, but they are Gwen’s allies, not mystical and misty beings who in a deus-ex-machina manner save the day. I liked that, it made them separate from the old gods and the Christian god, instead of almost synonymous with the former. The approach to religion in this book is also classic Lackey. As it is put in her Valdemar novels ‘There is no one true way.’ and this also reflected in Gwen’s attitude towards the Christian priests and monks she encounters, she even has a discussion to that effect with Abbot Gildas. I found that interesting, as while this view is typical Lackey, it is also a view that I’ve seen before in Arthurian literature.
Gwenhwyfar is a true Lackey novel; it is a smooth read and she easily keeps you turning pages. But the author did manage to surprise me with her take on Guinevere. Lackey is one of my auto-buy authors, but even if you’re not a huge fan of her work, if you are interested in Arthuriana, Gwenhwyfar is worth reading for its originality.