Eighteen-year-old Vivienne lives in a world of knights and ladies, corsets and absinthe, outlaw magic and alchemical machines. By day, she is lady-in-waiting to the future queen of Camelot—Guinevere. By night, she secretly toils away in the clock tower as apprentice to Merlin, the infamous recovering magic addict.
Then she meets Marcus, below her in class, destined to become a knight, and just as forbidden as her apprenticeship with Merlin. When Morgan La Fey, the king’s sorceress sister, declares war on Camelot, Merlin thinks they can create a metal beast powered by steam and alchemy to defeat her. But to save the kingdom, Vivienne will have to risk everything—her secret apprenticeship, her love for Marcus, and her own life.
I have a thing for Arthurian-inspired stories. I know they’ve been done to death, but the tragedy of its love story, the chivalry of the knights, the mix of history and magic have all fascinated me ever since I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon at fourteen. Kathryn Rose’s Camelot Burning spoke to my inner fourteen-year-old when I read the synopsis and not being overly familiar with steampunk outside of a Victorian setting, I was interested to see how it would work for me. Unfortunately, while I liked the twists to the Arthurian side of things that Rose incorporated, it took me a long while to get to grips with the steampunk elements in the story as they were just a little jarring at first.
What exactly were the steampunk elements to the story? Well, Merlin practices alchemy instead of magic. Magic is anathema, because it’s addictive and will destroy the user in the end. It’s also considered stealing from the gods and a pagan practice. Through alchemy and artifice Merlin creates mechanical birds, such as his pet hawk Caldor, aerohawks which are steampunk airplanes, pistol-like fire lances, and mirrors that function much as a videophone might, to give just a few examples. And even Excalibur has been given a facelift. No longer just a sword, it now comes with a gauntlet attached. A gauntlet that reaches up to the shoulder and if you are not its destined bearer it’ll take off your arm. All of these were very inventive, but I really had to get used to them in the context of the Arthurian court.
Vivienne is an interesting character due to her double-life and her strong stance on equality. As Guinevere’s hand maid she is in a very visible position in the court, one that includes a lot of scrutiny, which makes hiding her secret double life apprenticing to Merlin even more difficult to hide and makes it even more imperative that she do so. She’s a gifted student of alchemy and has a natural skill at mechanics and I found her work in Merlin’s tower quite interesting. I liked that she didn’t let herself be side-lined when danger came calling. She understands the impulse to protect her that Merlin, Marcus and her brother Owen display, but rejects the need. And she doesn’t just sneak about either, in one instance she even faces down Merlin and convinces him she’ll have to come along and he acquiesces, a scene that I really liked. I also enjoyed the ill-starred love affair between Vivienne and Marcus, even if it did feel a bit too insta-lovey to me, which made me a little grumpy about it at the beginning.
The way Rose handled the story of Arthur and Morgan was interesting. She keeps the bare bones of the dynamic between the two – brother and sister, illegitimate son – but at the same time changes Morgan’s background, making her a healer who has turned to alchemy and become a powerful sorcerer due to it. However, I found her handling of the Lancelot and Guinevere element a little disappointing, mostly because it took away their agency. To me, it is the way their love tears them apart inside and away from each other that is the crux of their interactions and their ultimate decision to act upon it, is what makes their story tragic, not the star-crossed romance—an element that is completely missing from this version of the tale.
In the end, Camelot Burning isn’t really a retelling of the Arthur legend; it is the story of a young girl coming into her own using some of the Arthurian story elements to build the tale. I wouldn’t exactly call it just window dressing, but it’s not a traditional retelling either. Once I made that connection I found myself being able to enjoy the story far more and just focus on Vivienne’s tale. And that tale is interesting enough that I want to know what happens next. Camelot Burning is a solid debut novel for Kathryn Rose and it will be interesting to see where Vivienne’s story will go in the second book.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.