|Title: Child of the Northern Spring|
Author: Persia Woolley
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Among the first took look at the story of Camelot through Guinevere's eyes, Woolley sets the traditional tale in the time of its origin, after Britain has shattered into warring fiefdoms. Hampered by neither fantasy nor medieval romance, this young Guinevere is a feisty Celtic tomboy who sees no reason why she must learn to speak Latin, wear dresses, and go south to marry that king. But legends being what they are, the story of Arthur's rise to power soon intrigues her, and when they finally meet, Guinevere and Arthur form a partnership that has lasted for 1500 years.
This is Arthurian epic at its best-- filled with romance, adventure, authentic Dark Ages detail, and wonderfully human people.
Every time I read that blurb, I find myself kinda turned-off by Persia Woolley’s rather high-and-mighty attitude towards fantasy and romance (this isn’t just the blurb, I’ve seen this sentiment in her interviews and in the author’s notes and reader questions). I mean, I get it that she’s writing historical fiction, but there’s no reason to get down fantasy or romance.
Then I remember that the hardcover of the Guinevere trilogy was published with a fantasy cover and the paperback with a romance cover and how the whole series was pretty much buried under Mists of Avalon and realize that Woolley has every right to be frustrated with fantasy and romance.
Warning for Spoilers
This is Guinevere’s story. Not really the most original of twists when you consider the wide range of Guinevere fiction that is now published, but I’m pretty sure this was one of the early ones. Like the story says, Gwen is a feisty Celtic tomboy, which I’m pretty sure was a new twist for that point in time. Woolley says in her authors notes that Gwen had often been presented in a very Victorian archetype of women (pretty and sex=bad). Woolley was trying to get Gwen back to her Celtic roots as the May Queen— a woman known for her joy and good spirits.
The story starts with Gwen about to leave her home in Rheged and go south to marry Arthur. The first half of the book alternates between flashbacks of Guinevere thinking about her childhood and Bedivere telling her the story of Arthur’s ascension to the throne. The second half is Gwen and Arthur’s meeting and the lead up to their marriage.
The first half of the book was not very interesting— at least for me. I’ve read numerous accounts of how Arthur became king and those never seem to vary much beyond where the sword comes from. I’ve also read numerous accounts of a tomboy Guinevere who’d rather spend time with horses than in the sewing room and really isn’t thrilled about marrying Arthur
I had to keep reminding myself while reading this book that it came first and that all the other books it was reminding me off came afterwards. This was not a lighter, fluffier version of Helen Hollick’s Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. Pendragon’s Banner is a harder, edgier, more historically accurate version of this (except not, because the only book Hollick references in her author’s notes is Mists of Avalon— her books are basically a direct rebuttal to Bradley’s). Still, it was hard not to draw comparisons between the two books and find this one wanting.
The story definitely picked up during the second half when Guinevere and Arthur finally met. This part of the story follows their meeting near Chester and then their journey down to Sarum where their wedding is held. There were some fascinating moments through this part of the story such as Gwen’s marriage blessing by Nimue, the introductions of Pellinore and Maelgwn, Guinevere’s time spent with Igraine and watching a relationship grow between Gwen and Arthur. I flew through the last half of the book and enjoyed every minute of it. The best part of the entire story was definitely Arthur and Guinevere’s actual wedding— forced to take place days earlier than anticipated because of an impending invasion. The wedding was hurried, performed early in the morning with no finery and only a handful of Gwen and Arthur’s closest friends. And it fit them perfectly.
Get ready for a long list because Wooley’s uses everyone in this story. And I mean everyone.
Guinevere: This is the tomboy Guinevere archetype (as opposed to the great beauty Guinevere archetype). She’s headstrong, a valued advisor and loves horses. Early in the book, she is dead set against marrying Arthur and is trying to figure out a way to escape during her journey south. But after hearing about Arthur from Bedivere, she decides to see through this duty with the dignity of a Celtic Queen (there is a lot of talk of Celtic Queens and how they are very much about duty and seeing to the needs of her people). Gwen also has a rather amusing prejudice against the south (read-Romans Britons) and it was great to see her perceptions of what the south was like clash with what it actually was (not as silly and frivolous as she had been raised to believe). I really enjoyed her character and look forward to following Gwen on the rest of her journey.
Arthur: Standard fare Arthur here. Good ruler, good leader, well loved by all who serve him. When he and Gwen first meet, there’s a lot of passion between them through their shared interests in bringing about the best for Britain. Come their wedding night (well, wedding morning because of an impending invasion), all that is gone and Arthur basically gives Gwen a quicky before passing out. While a good man and clearly a man trying to do the right thing, you can clearly see Arthur dancing to his grave in this one, which I find fascinating. In most retellings, Arthur is such a good man that the reason for Gwen’s betrayal is that she seems him as too good for her. In this, while a good man you can tell that something is missing right from the beginning and I really look forward to this developing over the next few books.
Bedivere: Arthur’s best friend and a very prominent character in this book as he escorts Gwen south for Arthur. His main purpose so far has been to tell Gwen the story of how Arthur became King. Bedivere was raised in Sir Ector’s house after being orphaned by raiders and is foster brother to Cei and Arthur. It’s made clear that Bedivere is Arthur’s closest confidant and quickly becomes one of Guinevere’s as well. As per usual, Bedivere is something of a bard and Arthur’s best diplomat.
Igraine: A turn how from she’s usually portrayed, Arthur’s mother has a large part in this story, but not until after Gwen arrives in Sarum for her wedding. Not much is seen of the Queen Mother in Gwen’s flashbacks or Bedivere’s tales, which is where one would expect the story to place her. Instead, she becomes Gwen’s closest friend and confidant right before the young woman’s marriage. Igraine has a gift for reading people and immediately determines that Guinevere will make a worthy Queen. Igraine was also very introspective— it was clear that she knew herself and understood her choice and while I don’t think she was perfectly happy with where she had ended up, I don’t think she would have changed anything in her life. It’s such a change from the silly woman obsessed with Uther (although its clear that the two of them had a strong and loving marriage before he died) and I quite enjoyed it.
Gawain: First introduced in Guinevere’s flashbacks, Gawain first visits Guinevere’s home in Rheged when his father travels through the northern kingdoms, trying to drum up support in a rebellion against Arthur. Gawain is very boastful and is constantly comparing boring old Rheged to the wonders to be had at Orkney, driving Guinevere crazy as she is quite proud of her home. She goes a long way to try and impress Gawain, eventually getting the best of him with her horsemanship and the two enter into an easy friendship. Gawain goes on to serve Arthur and eventually meets Gwen again when she comes south for her wedding. Usually, as far as archetypes go, Gawain can go two ways: either he’s so hotheaded and proud that he ruins everything or he’s loyal to Arthur and his family to a fault. Woolley manages to brilliantly blend both of these archetypes flawlessly, creating a proud and hotheaded young man tempered by his loyalty to his loved ones. Gawain was fantastic.
Nimue: A young priestess at the temple at Avebury who performs the Bride’s Blessing before Guinevere’s wedding. Nimue is quiet, good natured and soon proves herself to be a loyal friend. She leaves the temple at Avebury to warn Arthur at Sarum of the impending invasion. This is where she meets Merlin and they become fast companions. I think we all know where this is headed and it ends with a tree or in a ace or both or something. However, considering Nimue’s nature, I’m going to guess that Merlin wanted to be locked in a tree for whatever reason.
Merlin: Arthur’s tutor and a member of the party that goes to fetch Guinevere in the north. An enchanted, Merlin plays chess master, moving everyone into the right place at the right time in order to ensure the outcome he wants. He does this with Arthur, brining about his reunion with Uther right before the old king dies so Arthur can be acknowledged as heir and again with Guinevere and Arthur’s marriage, having them meet years before (Gwen wasn’t impressed). He doesn’t completely lose his wits upon meeting Nimue and the two of them seem to make a good time when it comes to advising Arthur. Still, I’m guessing tree.
Palomides: An Arab originally enslaved by a Greek doctor, but adopted by a Breton family before the story. Palomides is a master horseman and, in this world, brings the stirrup to Arthur’s cavalry. It’s an innovative take on a character who is often learning during his joinery through Britain instead of teaching.
Pellinore: A big man with a big appetite. And by that I mean sex. He talks a lot about how he likes to go hunting for the goddess in women, which is really just his excuse for sleeping around. Dude has like a zillion kids by a bunch of different women. He has so many kids that he doesn’t even recognize his own daughter and leaves her dying on the side of the road in an effort to get into Nimue’s pants (which leaves him cursed-- maybe he'll learn a lesson from this). He’s loyal, though, to Arthur and Guinevere (he considers her family, to Arthur and Gwen’s great relief). And he killed lot, which works to his favor in Arthur’s eyes.
Morgan Le Fay: The High Priestess of the Old Religion and Lady of the Lake. Morgan want to ensure the survival of the old religion— nothing new there. She is haughty and arrogant and very protective of her power. When she hears that Gwen received her blessing at Avebury, Morgan demands that it be redone so she can perform it herself. When Arthur demands she marry them before the blessing, she refuse, pushing him towards the archbishop. It’s easy to see how Morgan’s lust for power is going to lead to the destruction of the Old Religion. Still, despite her arrogance, she is closest to Arthur of his living family.
Griflet: A character not often seen in modern retellings. Here Griflet is the son of Arthur’s chamberlain. A young lad who journeys south with Guinevere and eventually becomes Arthur’s kennel master. An interesting backstory to a character who could have been just another knight.
Maelgwn: It’s everybody’s favorite rapist. So far Maelgwn hasn’t done any raping, but I give him till the next book considering his conduct here. He hosts Guinevere and Arthur during the night they stay in his city. He already tried to marry Gwen once (despite being married) because he feels entitled to her homeland through his blood ties to her mother. He tries to feel Guinevere up and she gives him a lovely bruise on his face for his trouble. When asked about the injury the next day, Maelgwn says he got into a fight with a prostitute. A real charmer, this one. I see much violence in his future.
Cei: Another standard fare here. Arthur’s seneschal. Curt and to the point. Not a warm or fuzzy bone in his body. And yet everyone depends on him to see the important work done and Cei often works miracles. At the tail end of the book, he and Gwen begin to develop a working relationship I look forward to seeing explored in the next book.
Balin/Balan: This was a fascinating take on this legend. Through Gwen’s flashbacks, we learn of twins Balin, Christian, and Balan, Pagan. During Arthur’s coronation, the Balin kills Vivian, the first Lady of the Lake. Balan swears revenge against his brother and chases him north. Along the way, they deal King Pellam the Fisher King Wound. Eventually Kevin, Gwen’s childhood sweetheart sees them kill each other— or rather, himself. Balan and Balin were one person, split into two personalities because of his inability to deal with the Christian/Pagan divide. It totally destroys this man and I think it’s a warning of things to come for Britain.
Okay, now for the short list of people who make a brief appearance.
Leodegrance is Gwen’s father. A good man who loves her and gives her her choice in marriage. Tristan and Dinadan show up in Rheged to get Gwen out as a possible bride for King Mark, but she plays up her pagan-ness to avoid marrying that horrible man. Tristan isn’t that bright (surprise surprise), but it’s okay cause Dinadan is smart enough for both of them. Uther is the great war king who held Britain together and was quite excited to meet his son right before he died in battle, just the way he would have wanted to go. Lot and Urien both want to be high king. Lot actually makes an effort to rally the northern Kings while Urien tries to wait him out. Arthur defeats them both and Lot is killed by Pellinore while Urien becomes Arthur’s new favorite ally cause of Morgan or something. Ector is Arthur’s foster father, a kind man who also brought Bedivere in out of the kindness of his heart and continues to look after his boys. King Mark shows up for the wedding, leers at Gwen and then leaves because he doesn’t want to help Arthur with the invasion. Gaheris makes an appearance as Gawain’s next youngest brother and seems to have a promising future as a diplomat ahead of him. Let’s hope he doesn’t screw it up by murdering Morgause. Ettard is a lady-in-waiting to Igraine. A good girl who works hard but flip-flops back and forth between staying in the life she’s always known and reaching for something higher. Accolon shows up briefly near the end and promptly jumps into bed with Morgan Le Fay and then leaves with her in a huff after Gwen finds out about their affair.
Okay, so at this point pretty much the only major Arthurian character who hasn’t shown up yet is Lancelot. Or has he? My pet theory is that Kevin, Gwen’s childhood sweetheart, is actually Lancelot. I’m probably wrong because Kevin is crippled and can’t fight and Lancelot, Ban’s son, has been mentioned in passing. But my hope is that they look a lot alike and that Kevin killed Lancelot and took over his identity or something. Because he certainly had Lancelot’s whining down to a pat before his disappeared because his love for Guinevere was too much to bear.
So overall I really liked this book. Mostly because there are all these characters that you rarely see in modern retellings. And instead of just having them as a passing name or someone who shows up for one moment and then disappearing. Wooley is doing an awesome job of actually developing the individual stories attributed to these characters within her text. It makes for a rich world and a fascinating read. 4 stars.