|Title: Grail Prince |
Author: Nancy McKenzie
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Synopsis: (from the publisher) "The wheel is turning and the world will change... And a son of Lancelot, with a bloody sword and a righteous heart, shall renew the Light in Britain before the descent of save dark."
So spoke the Lady of the Lake. Now her grim prophecy is coming true. King Arthur lies dead, struck down along with Mordred, his son and heir, and the greatest knights of Camelot. Of that peerless company, only Lancelot survives, a broken man who has turned his back on Britain and on his forbidden love of Guinevere. Yet one knight, scarcely more tha a boy, fights amid the ruins to keep Arthur's dream alive: Galahad, the son of Lancelot.
Before his death, Arthur swore the young knight to undertake a quest: a search for the scattered treasures of an ancient king. On the recovery of these powerful relics-- a grail, a spear and a sword-- hinges the future of Britain. But it is the past that torments Galahad. He cannot forget or forgive his father's betrayal of his king. Nor can he banish thoughts of the intoxicating Dandrane, sister of his friend Percival, from his mind. Yet only a man pure in heart can fulfill the prophecy of the Lady of the Lake.
Not since The Mists of Avalon has an author so brilliantly reimagined and brought to life the enduring Arthurian legends. Weaving back and forth through time, from Arthur's mightly reign and commanding influence to Galahad's ultimate quest to preserve the destiny of a nation, Grail Prince is an unforgettable epic of adventure and romance, of clashing swords and hearts set in a magical world as deadly as it is beautiful.
I didn't realize that Nancy McKenzie's books had been compared to Mists of Avalon until I typed up the summary. They're not anything alike. These characters are actually likeable.
Warnings for Spoilers of both Grail Prince and Queen of Camelot under the cut
Nancy McKenzie’s book Queen of Camelot is one of my top three favorite Arthurian books. I love it so much that I was actually rather terrified to read its sequel, The Grail Prince. I first read Queen of Camelot in 2008. Now, in 2011, I finally mustered up the courage to read Grail Prince. Not that I hadn’t thought about picking up Grail Prince over the years, but I had numerous concerns about the book stemming from how Galahad’s character was set up in Queen of Camelot.
A. Grail Prince takes place after the fall of Camelot. I’m generally less interested in stories that take place after the fall of Arthur than stories that take place during his golden age.
B. In Queen of Camelot, Galahad’s character is portrayed as a borderline psychopath. I was not keen on following him and his crazy around for 500 pages. Especially if the book was in first person like Queen of Camelot.
C. In the Queen of Camelot, the Grail quest is revealed to have been completely made up by Mordred to get Galahad and his crazy out of Camelot. It did not seem like fun to follow Galahad around for 500 pages only to have Guinevere tell him at the end that Mordred made the whole thing up. Talk about a downer ending.
I eventually decided to read Grail Prince after learning that the book alternated between past and present and that Galahad was traveling with Percival (who was not a character in Queen of Camelot). I was far more interested in seeing past events portrayed from a perspective other than Guinevere. I’ve always wondered if Gwen was the most reliable of narrators and this was the ideal chance to see the story from a perspective vastly different from hers and have some questions answered. And, as I discovered upon starting the book, McKenzie wrote Grail Prince in third person instead of first, which was a great relief.
The portions of the book that took place in the past were by far my favorite. They answered several questions and addressed several problems I had with Queen of Camelot. First and foremost, I had always wondered if Gwen was a reliable narrator when it came to Mordred. While Mordred seemed like an honorable knight and a loving son to his father and stepmother, Gwen had a tendency throughout the book to ignore the faults of those she loved and only see the goodness in them. Gwen did the same thing earlier in the book with her cousin Elaine (except Elaine was really obvious about her villainy). Lancelot was always telling Gwen that Mordred wasn’t to be trusted, so I always wondered. But, I was happy to learn that Mordred was the man Gwen always believed him to be. Even Galahad, at the height of his religious frenzy came to believe that Mordred wasn’t an evil abomination. So, finally knowing that Mordred wasn’t evil and would never hurt Arthur pleased me greatly.
The other issue I had with Queen of Camelot was the death of Gwen’s cousin, Elaine (also the wife of Lancelot and mother of Galahad). In Queen of Camelot, Elaine betrays Gwen to Melwas because she’s in love with Arthur. Elaine is banished from Camelot, but right before leaving she seduces Lancelot, gets pregnant and marries him. She leaves Camelot and dies off screen. It always felt anti-climatic because Elaine was so delightfully cuckoo that I actually missed her after her death. Fortunately, she makes a strong return in this novel, haunting Galahad throughout the story. It was the sendoff I wanted her to have in the first book.
One of the main concerns I have read in reviews of Queen of Camelot is that Gwen is put up as this paradigm of virtue and goodness and all the other women in the book are evil. While I don’t agree with that critique (and maybe one day I’ll comment on that more), I don’t think it is one that anyone can make about Grail Prince. There aren’t any central female characters in the story as it follows Galahad who never stays in one place for long, but awesome female characters do appear at every stage of his journey. And they are all critical to his growth throughout the story and completion of his quest. In a neat twist that so fits in with themes presented in Queen of Camelot, Galahad doesn’t attain the Grail because he is the most perfect or pious knight. He attains the Grail when he learns to honor and respect and forgive others—particularly women whom his pious upbringing had made him particularly venomous against. So, I really enjoyed that in order to attain the Grail, Galahad needed to move away from God and closer to humans.
I definitely would give this book five stars. Nancy McKenzie is a fantastic writer. She crafts a wonderful tale so full of human emotion I can’t even put words to it. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for any Arthurian fan (especially anyone who would like to see a more human Galahad- rare is the author who allows him the chance to grow).
On the Rape:
This is one of the rapes (Galahad’s) I mentioned in my Mists of Avalon review, although I’m on the fence as to whether or not it actually occurred. McKenzie never makes it clear what actually transpires in the story. There is a scene where Galahad ends up at a secluded castle with five daughters whose father is purposefully keeping them hidden away—and all want to get married and have sex. Galahad arrives ill and is feverish for the next several weeks. One of the daughters, Bella, starts feeling him up while he’s in a fevered sleep, watching his body react but Galahad doesn’t wake up. Then she says “Tomorrow then. If you can’t teach me, perhaps I can teach myself” (pg. 404). Bella then goes on to fake a pregnancy to try and force Galahad to marry her. She’s eventually caught by one of her sisters and Galahad graciously sees all five sisters safely out into the world (more for the elder sister Germaine, with whom he becomes a close friend).
I don’t know what I would have wanted Nancy McKenzie to do in such a scene. Male rape (especially by a woman) is unfortunately considered barely a crime worth noting in our society and certainly wouldn’t be thought possible in Arthur’s time. And of course we never know if the deed actually happened or if Bella chickened out (Galahad can’t remember and Bella doesn’t say). But... Galahad is at such a fragile state at that point in the story. He believes he has failed his quest for the Grail, will never achieve his foretold destiny, believes he’s fallen from grace and doesn’t care about any of that stuff because he’s betrayed his friends but is such a broken individual he has no idea how to go about seeking forgiveness from humans (he is quite adept at seeking forgiveness from God and penance). If feels unfair that McKenzie heaps this upon him as well and then never addresses it beyond Galahad doing his duty to Bella (which is actually a huge step in the right direction for his character but I don’t like how it was brought about). I suppose it would have been nice to see some hint of Galahad feeling violated instead of just confused. Some acknowledgement that Bella did a whole lot worse to him than lie to force a marriage (and she did molest him, even if the rape never occurred). So, certainly not the most ridiculous and offensive portrayal of rape in an Arthurian book (thank you Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit), but certainly not a respectful one either.