When I saw that one of my favorite authors of all time, Mercedes Lackey, had written a book about Arthurian legend, I practically saw stars. The book is Gwenhwyfar, and the idea comes from references to three different Gwenhwyfar characters referenced in source texts for the legend (plus one Gwenhwyfach) all thought to have been married to King Arthur. Lackey’s story follows the third of the Gwens, who was born with magical power but chose to take up the sword instead. But when she is called to marry the aging and childless King Arthur, she must leave behind the fierce warrior reputation she has spent her life building to become his third queen.
As a child, Gwen clearly carries the magical power of her mother’s line, but is drawn to the way of iron and forgoes that power to become a warrior. She becomes a skilled fighter and eventually one of her father’s war chiefs. But it is difficult to be both woman and soldier, and Gwen carefully crafts a genderless reputation to maintain her position. But as her nurse notes, “there are very few men who could look on a warrior, see the woman within, and remember the warrior,” and Gwen runs afoul of this first with the intriguing Lancelin, and then when she finds herself married to Arthur in an attempt to prevent the evil Orkneys from contesting the throne. But though there can be no true happiness in self-denial, neither can there be peace when the balance is thrown. Gwen can have what her heart wants or what her head wants, not both.
I confess I expected this to be more of an Arthurian novel – it is advertised as one – but Gwen doesn’t even meet Arthur until only 100 pages from the end. He is, however, a big presence by hearsay and rumor: we hear occasionally of his doings and events at court. We get much more of Lancelin and Medraut who are characters just as important to the legend. Lackey also presents interesting ideas on what might actually have happened during the more unbelievable or contentious bits of the myth — such as Merlin’s fate, or Arthur’s.
What we do get is Gwenhwfar’s story, start to finish. It begins when she is a young girl, follows her through warrior training when Arthur was just a far off king, through literal battles and those fought to gain a place among the men, the choice to let that dream go to marry Arthur for the good of the land, her capture by Medraut, rescue, inevitable tryst with Lancelin, and the final desperate battle of Armageddon. In true Lackey style, Gwen is strong, naturally talented, and smarter than the men around her. While her solo adventures are entertaining, her prowess begins to make you wonder if she can truly do no wrong.
Fortunately (perhaps) the Arthurian frame keeps the book away from Lackey’s tendency towards writing WW – tales of Camelot do not end happily for anyone. In the end, fate and mischance prove too strong even for Gwen to beat, and she is left an empty husk after the smoke clears. A simple look traded by Gwen and Lancelin after the battle conveys the true depth of the tragedy: “that love, if love it really had been, had burned bright and guttered out.” Even the love that promised to save her just as it damned her, is gone. The futility of it all is the killing blow, and though Gwen survives the battle, she remains diminished, somehow less for all that it ends on a hopeful note.
As Lancelin says in the end, “the world does not end for everyone. Just for a few.”
Overall, this book rates a WW on the PSA, but the ending redeems itself with an AJ rating.