|Title: Lionors: King Arthur's Uncrowned Queen|
Author: Barbara Ferry Johnson
Synopsis: (from the publisher) When she was thirteen, Lionors first saw Arthur. Little did she know the consequences of that meeting. The handsome young knight would be declared King of Britain, marry the beautiful Guinevere, and fall to the treachery of his court while Lionors, secretly married to him, would bear his child and wait for him to leave his palace to be at her side in fulfillment of the old prophecy: "You will be a queen, but you will die uncrowned and unknown."
I was super psyched when I recently found this book. As I have stated before, I love books about side characters. And unlike Viviane or Galahad, who usually appear in retellings but only in small roles, Lisanor is pretty much all but forgotten. And here’s this book all about her! I couldn’t wait to finish Merlin’s Harp so I could start reading this book.
My feelings for Lionors went thus: In the beginning I was happy, in the middle I was bored and at the end I was really angry.
Warning for Spoilers and another 2000 word review
A simple twist as far as retellings go—it’s about a character most people haven’t even heard of. Lisanor (Lionors in the book) is a young woman Arthur as an affair with before his marriage to Guinevere and is usually cited as the mother of Loholt/Borre. This story told in first person POV from Lionors’ perspective. She meets Arthur when he’s living as the foster son of Sir Ector. Lionors’ father is the Earl of Sanam and being a less important noble in an important and well traveled area, he likes to host all sorts of travelers and hunting parties. Arthur and Lionors meet during Ector’s first visit to Sanam and the two fall pretty much in love—spending their days together in happy bliss on Lionors’ island of Ave Lion (say that three times fast and what do you get?) And then Arthur becomes king, they get married and live... oh, no, wait. Arthur has to marry Guinevere for a political match and Lionors goes back to her father’s estate and sees Arthur sporadically over the next several years.
The aspect of this tale that I was so looking forward to was Lionors bearing Loholt/Borre because that would mean Arthur had another son along with Mordred. That would have created some serious court/political intrigue at Camelot. Alas, Lionors has a daughter who is blind (thus ensuring she is no threat to Mordred or plays any significant part in the story). There is no intrigue at Camelot. There is no nothing. The story entirely focuses on Lionors and her boring life in Sanam.
As I said, the beginning of the book was interesting. That was Lionors as a young woman, meeting Arthur for the first time and the romance that followed. Then Arthur is crowned king of Britain. Lionors and Arthur are secretly betrothed by Merlin and she gets pregnant. But then Arthur has to marry Guinevere in a political match. This is where we get to the middle of the story, which was really boring. The story is first person POV from Lionors’ perspective. She goes on for pages and pages and pages summarizing events. Someone comes to visit? We won’t have that person tell their story. Instead, Lionors will summarize what they said. Do you have days and days and days worth of chores to perform? Lionors will go over those in great detail. But, you know, she never comments on the conversations she has. Or if there was a conversation, she pretty much summarizes it. Rarely, after Lionors’ betrothal to Arthur is broken, do you see a full conversation. Mostly, it’s just a summary.
As for the actual events that occur in the middle 200 pages... there’s not much there either. Lionors gives birth to her daughter (Elise) and has to leave the child in an abbey. Grieving over having to give up her child, she takes the son of a village woman (named Will) under her wing to train as a page/future steward. Lancelot stops by on his way to Camelot and promptly begins the affair with Guinevere upon arrival. That makes Arthur feel as though it’s okay return Lionors and they pick up pretty much where they left off. Arthur pretty much raises Elise and Will. Will and Elise fall in love, but she is raped and decides to take her vows. Arthur comes up with the Grail Quest (As both a way to keep his knights from getting bored and to cure his impotency—of course then Lionors fixes the second problem in short order and you wonder why it was ever an issue). Galahad swings by and then he dies.
The most bothersome part about the middle wasn’t just the summarizing. It was how Lionors narrated this story. Sometimes she would reveal that there was more to a certain story than she was telling us. Sometimes she would hold things back so the big reveal would come out of left field later on. And sometimes she could go on and on about things she shouldn’t really have any knowledge of. Like, you get to a point where it’s convenient for her to know something or met someone and she’s done it, even though it’s never been mentioned in the text before (and with the detailed narration of her chores, that was hard to swallow). She would talk at great lengths about things Merlin did—the way Merlin saw the world. And while we’re told that Lionors and Merlin become close, there really is no evidence in the text of this. So these long commentaries on Merlin’s world view would be Lionors writing what Arthur had told her about Merlin. Very boring. And very not related to anything.
And then we get to the last 50 pages. Starting with Mordred’s arrival at Lionors’ estate. He’s figured out her affair with Arthur and wants to meet his half sibling. Lionors is able to convincingly deny all his evidence, but she can tell Mordred doesn’t buy it. After he leaves, we get this lovely line from Lionors (Pg 248):
I had no sympathy to spare for [Lancelot and Guinevere]. If they chose not to be discreet, they deserved whatever punishment attended their discovery. But it was not fair to Arthur, who had quietly closed his eyes to their affair all these years so they could be happy and at the same time had used utmost discretion in his relationship with me.
Look, lady. I have no sympathy for that affair either, but you were caught first! Mordred figured out your deal with Arthur long before he figured out the Lancelot/Guinevere thing. It’s so maddening to see women turn on each other like this. For Lionors to blame Guinevere, someone she hasn’t even met, for her problems...I couldn’t take it. If this book wasn’t 35 years old and in bad shape, it would have been heading towards a wall.
After that, the book held very little appeal for me. The dialogue, when it was there, was silted and dry and Lionors’ narration was at it ever was. She goes to Camelot as a lady in waiting to Guinevere. Gwen’s affair with Lancelot is discovered. She’s set to burn at the stake, but Lancelot swoops in to rescue her. In a twist I had no patience for at this point, Mordred, not Lancelot, murders Gareth in the confusion to set Arthur and Lancelot against each other in war. Only Lionors sees this, and Mordred has her shuffled off back to her estate before she can tell Arthur. Arthur and Lancelot fight their war and then Mordred and Arthur fight their war. Lionors only hears spare details from her estate until Merlin brings her Arthur’s body to bury at Ave Lions. The end, thank you.
Lionors: Besides the hugely disappointing legendary deviation of not being Loholt/Borre’s mother, Lionors was alright most of the time. She was smart and resourceful. She showed a willingness to learn and did a great job of managing her estate (after her father dies). There were some moments where I worried for her sanity (mostly when she was plotting on how she was going to redirect Will’s affection away from his mother and onto her but then offers no affection to Will in return because he was going to be her page). She also had an annoying habit of blaming everyone for her shitty situation except Merlin and Arthur—the ones who caused her shitty situation.
Arthur: He’s your standard Arthur. A good, wise king. Brilliant because of everything Merlin has taught him over the years (I definitely got Sword in the Stone vibes when Arthur was explaining to Lionors how to breathe underwater using a reed or identify the sounds of birds and stuff). He also has the annoying Arthur habit of feeling really guilty over the terrible things he has done in his life (sleeping with Morgause, betraying his betrothal to Lionors, betraying his marriage to Guinevere, deserting Mordred and Elise) but never doing anything to make amends for those mistakes. He just lets them fester and get worse.
Merlin: This Merlin stands in as a father figure to Arthur and his tutor from when Arthur was living with Sir Ector. He’s a wise old man. Lionors goes to great lengths in her narration to prove that there is nothing magical about Merlin and it is only his vast knowledge that makes him appear to have magic. But then, Merlin will do something or know something or send Arthur a dream that clearly seems to suggest magic.
Kay: Training to be a knight when we first meet him, the best description for Kay is that he is the older brother. He believes himself privileged to everything that is Arthur’s. Lionors finds him to be harsh and rather crude, but overall a good person underneath (I’m getting vibes of Sword in the Stone again). It is also clear (as much as Arthur pouts at the beginning) that Kay is trusted and loved by Arthur. And then he dies in one of Arthur’s early campaigns.
Lancelot is a proud and arrogant knight who passes through Lionors’ estate on his way to Camelot and promptly jumps into bed with Guinevere. Guinevere is described as delightful and a model Queen. Lionors says she likes Guinevere when she goes to serve as the Queen’s lady in waiting (not like it’s ever really shown) and sometimes she stays in the Queens room to keep the Lancelots away (guess who gets caught in Gwen’s room the first night Lionors neglects this duty?). Galahad is also a proud young knight who passes through the estate during the Grail Quest and then dies. Gareth only appears to die at
Lancelot’s Mordred’s hand during the rescue of Guinevere and Gawain only appears to demand vengeance.
Mordred, of course, is evil for evil’s sake. No reason is given. See how much of a non-reason he has (Pg. 243):
“But not the fruit of incest! Oh, I’ve heard the whisperings.” He ranted almost like a pouting child exaggerating his hurts. “They look at me as though I were a freak and should sprout horns or a tail. They are amazed that I have human form and wait to see if I will change into something weird when the moon comes out.”
The juxtaposition in this quote is interesting. Mordred has a legitimate grievance and Lionors simply writes him off as a pouting child. I hate this characterization of Mordred so much. It’s not just that he’s evil for the sake of evil. It’s that everyone acts as if he has no reason to act the way he does. That he has no reason to be angry. That the fact that Morgause was the only person to show him kindness (and since it is Morgause, Lionors of course assumes it was a twisted kindness) is something he should get over. That no one trusting him is something he should get over. This is a character that has every reason to be bitter and angry at the world and all the other characters are both disregarding his feelings and treating him like a human time bomb. Of course he’s going to ruin your lives.
Two stars for this book because of all the problems mentioned above. I’m so sad. I had such high hopes for this book and it was just a big spiral of disappointment.
On the Rape (Warning for Triggers)
There are two rapes in this book. The first occurs when Lionors is on her way to the abbey to give birth to her daughter. She’s set upon by highway men and they threaten her with rape. To make their point, they summon a woman from their camp and one of the bandits rapes her right in front of Lionors. Despite the fact that Lionors believes the woman to be mentally disabled—despite the fact that the woman has likely been in the camp a long time and likely had her will broken at this point—Lionors describes the act as consensual.
It should be self explanatory why that didn’t sit well with me.
The second rape is Lionors’ daughter, Elise, who is raped as a young woman by one of the village men. Will, who at that point was courting Elise, kills the rapist in retaliation. This whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. From the fact that Lionors doesn’t suspect anything is wrong until weeks later to Elise deciding to break off her romance with Will and take vows—the whole ordeal was chalk full of tropes in a way that made my skin crawl. I couldn’t believe that Lionors, who had been so attentive of Will and Elise in the previous years, never noticed anything was wrong (or that the rapist had murdered their dog—you think she would have at least wondered about the dog disappearing, but no. She’s completely surprised when told). I didn’t like Elise, who up to that point had been a character in love with the world and wanting to experience every part of it, retreating to a nunnery because of the rape (not necessarily because it was a bad choice, but because the book framed it as Elise settling for less than what she wanted because the rape had been that devastating). I didn’t like that we never got to see Elise dealing with the rape or that she was pretty much forgotten after retreating to the nunnery. It was basically a plot device to get Elise off screen and I didn’t like it at all.