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A fluff piece
on 11 September 2014
I enjoy Arthurian retellings and was looking forward to starting this book, it is however a very disappointing read. I probably should have guessed from the cover art that it was going to be on the trashy side, but after reading the good reviews here and on Goodreads I decided to give it a try. I seem to have read a very different book from everyone else...
Lavinia Collins' author blurb describes her as an Oxford graduate in Medieval Literature and a feminist, both of which surprise me as her writing style is so juvenile (if it weren't for the rather explicit sex scenes, I would have believed I was reading budget YA romance) and our narrator, the "warrior" queen Guinevere, is barely even a protagonist in her own story, let alone a heroine, with scant warring to be found.
The character arc for Guinevere seems to revolve around her decision to take Lancelot as a lover. Collins seems to be trying to make a point about a woman finding her agency with so few life choices available in a man's world. However Guinevere's position as High Queen of all Britain and much of Europe makes this seem shallow and incredibly trivial. Rather than trying to exercise her newfound sense of agency to be an exceptional monarch or leader, the sum total of her emotional - although not social - freedom is to verbalise her want for a lover. In one scene, putting the final nail in the book's feminist cred, Guinevere gets so frustrated by desire she faints and takes to her bed...
Where is this warrior queen I was promised? Boudica she is not.
Speaking of those sex scenes, be forewarned that they comprise about 50% of this short book, with a further 20% spent pre coitus. I'm no prude, but I don't find it good reading when erotica is used in place of actual character and relationship building. Readers are to believe that the strong feelings between Lancelot and Guinevere are such because of love at first sight. I have no problem with love at first sight per se, but it does make for very dull reading, offering no opportunity to understand the characters intimately as they learn and become intimate with each other through dialogue. If someone were to ask me to sum up each character in five words, I would struggle to find one.
These issues, coupled with the almost nonexistent world building of the Camelot/Medieval Britain universe, meant there were many times I felt I was reading a high-school drama, with Arthur as the tough guy with a heart of gold, Guinevere as the alternative chick who wants to "find herself", and Lancelot, the sensitive foreign exchange student who enjoys poetry and really "gets" her; replete with brutish, rapey frat boy older brother, Gawaine; dumb-blonde Isolde, and wolf-in-sheep's-clothing Elaine. Basically, it's medieval Gossip Girl.
Half of the fun of Arthurian legend, to me at least, is the fantasy/magic aspect, but the book's resident woad-wearing pagans, Merlin, Morgan and Nimue, are one-dimensional caricatures that make for rather ridiculous - and barely there - antagonists. And don't even get me started on Guinevere's unrealised pagan religion and "wishing table".
All in all, worse books than this do exist, so if you're in the mood for a quick and easy read with a bit of raunch and no character development beyond resplendent glutes, rippling pectorals and inexplicable *feelings*, give it a try. If, however, you're looking for an intelligent and imaginative retelling of Arthurian legend with a rich story, fleshed out characters and great world-building try The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley; if you've already read that, quit while you're ahead.