|Title: In Camelot's Shadow|
Author: Sarah Zettel
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Fleeing from the knowledge that her father had promised her to an evil sorcerer, Risa of the Morelands refused to be a sacrifice. Armed with her bow and her confidence, she swore to evade the wicked Euberacon’s claim. And when she stumbled upon Sir Gawain, returning to Camelot to warn of a plot against the kingdom, she thought she’d discovered the perfect place to hide. Surely the sorcerer Euberacon would not approach her at court?
Now ensnared with court and political intrigue, Risa is out of her element. And Euberacon has forced a strong transformation spell upon her. There might be one chance left to save kingdom and soul—but it would take all the strength and power she had…
This book is the first in a series about the romances of the four Orkney brothers (Gawain, Agravain, Geraint and Gareth in this version). This book is Gawain’s, whose love life of the four is probably best known in legend. I currently own three of the four thanks to the local used book store and plan to review them all for you. If I can’t find book four (Agravain’s) then at some point I will borrow Story’s copy so as to complete the set.
Also, I do not understand the blurb above. The first paragraph is accurate enough, but there’s not a lot of “court and political intrigue”. And “save the kingdom”? That’s a side plot at best, and in the end the main series bad guy is only inconvenienced so I’m not sure either Gawain or Risa saved the kingdom. One more thing…the book is not all about Risa the way the blurb makes it sound. It is Gawain and Risa’s story and how they both overcome obstacles to come together.
Finally, um, what’s up with the title? It has nothing to do with what happens in the book other than it has the word “Camelot” in it. Odd.
Warning for Spoilers
So the two most famous stories about Gawain with him as the good guy are The Green Knight and The Loathly Lady. I have read several stories that use one or the other as a central plotline. To date, I have never read one that combines the two—until now. This story blends them very cleverly, though neither plotline shows up until relatively late in the book. The story’s focus is the relationship between Risa and Gawain, giving equal weight to each of them.
The book begins with a plot device familiar to those of us versed in fairy tales: a desperate man makes a bargain with an evil magical entity to give up his unborn daughter in exchange for his dying wife’s life. The father figures he and his wife will have many more children so the life of their firstborn is of little consequence. Of course eighteen years pass with no more children, which anyone except this poor idiot could have predicted. Risa, who at this point has grown into a beautiful young woman beloved by everyone except her guilt-crazed father, learns the truth and runs away. The sorcerer to whom she is promised shows up and tries to take her, but she is rescued by Sir Gawain. Gawain was on his way back to Camelot to report on a Saxon plot to rise against High King Arthur. He offers to take Risa there so that she can ask for Queen Guinevere’s protection from her father. In the process of getting to Camelot they are attacked several times by both Saxons and the sorcerer Euberacon’s forces (who happen to be in league; they are all working to overthrow Arthur) and the pair learn that they are well matched in just about every way. Of course they fall in love. Meanwhile, Morgaine and her henchwoman Kerra plot Arthur’s downfall with the help of Eubaracon.
Upon their arrival at Camelot, the couple have to deal with objections to their union, especially from law-abiding Argavain. However, Arthur and Guinevere are heartily for the match so Gawain receives permission to propose. Everything seems to be working out for our happy couple until Risa is kidnapped and taken to Euberacon’s fortress. When she tries to kill him he transforms her into a hideous crone and rechristens her Ragnelle. It is she rather than Gawain who must answer the riddle “what is it that every woman wants?” in order to destroy the sorcerer for good (the manner of his destruction is also familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales). The answer she finds to the riddle is not the answer from the original legend.
Meanwhile the mysterious Green Knight has appeared in Camelot and offered Gawain a bargain: if he can strike a blow from which the Green Knight does not rise, then the Green Knight will grant him a wish. If not, then Gawain must take a blow of his own. Thinking he will gain information that will help him find Risa, Gawain agrees, but of course the Green Knight survives his beheading. The “give whatever you gain during the day” test set for Gawain by the Green Knight and his “lady” (actually Kerra) will reveal whether Gawain is willing to be true to a bargain and to the woman he loves. Kerra stakes that Gawain won’t be able to resist a damsel in distress and will fall in love with her, breaking faith with Risa. In a departure from the Green Knight legend, Gawain wavers but eventually chooses the honorable path outright. When both Risa and Gawain have passed their tests, they are able to meet again as equals with their baggage finally behind them.
Risa (Dame Ragnell): The Loathly Lady spends very little of this story loathly—maybe twenty-five pages out of a nearly five hundred-page book. The rest of the time she seems to take her good looks for granted; she knows she’s beautiful but doesn’t really think much about it. She’s certainly not vain or inclined to use her beauty as a weapon the way Kerra and Gawain’s former love Pacis do. She and Gawain are both well matched in temperament, bravery, and warrior skills (she is an excellent bowwoman). She falls for him fairly quickly and spends a good chunk of the middle of the book trying to hide her feelings since she believes he must make a political match. She reacts well in a crisis and even when imprisoned and transformed by Eubaracon she doesn’t lose her head. She has faith in Gawain but doesn’t wait around for him to rescue her. Eubaracon wants to own her from before she was born because she has the Sight and he wants a slave who can learn magic. He and her father both don’t seem to realize that constantly telling a spirited woman that you own her and treating her like dirt is pretty much a guarantee she’ll rebel.
Gawain: A good and loyal young man who suffers from “white knight” syndrome: he can’t ignore a woman in distress and falls in and out of love with these helpless damsels quickly. He carries two great emotional burdens that make him vulnerable: he was unable to rescue his sister from being murdered by their father, and his first love was a cruel woman who was only toying with him. Unusually, he is Arthur’s official heir—somehow this very logical step doesn’t seem to come up very often in retellings. Thus his choice of wife is very important since she will one day take Guinevere’s place as High Queen and hostess of Camelot. Gawain falls in love with Risa as quickly as any of his other past loves, but comes to realize that what he feels for her is much more lasting. He is put to the test by the Green Knight and Kerra and proves that he is finally able to overcome his “white knight” syndrome and stay true to one woman.
Arthur: A good and wise king who rules with both law and heart. Nothing particularly unusual or standout about this portrayal.
Guinevere: Arthur’s powerful Queen who is known for giving her protection to ladies in distress. Like her husband she also seems wise and compassionate. Risa finds her a bit intimidating. There is no hint of any relationship with Lancelot thus far; she and Arthur seem to be on good terms if not mutually in love (Arthur certainly loves her, whether his feelings are returned fully is up for debate).
Agravain: The second of the Orkney brothers and the heir to their father’s kingdom since Gawain is destined to become High King. Gruff and cold, he stands in direct contrast to Gawain’s openness and empathy. Committed to following the letter of the law, he would happily give Risa back to her father since legally a girl is her father’s property until she marries. He is protective of Gawain and knows his brother loves easily and deeply, which Argavain sees as a weakness.
Kerra (Lady Bertilak): A lesser sorceress who is Morgaine’s protégé. She has her own agenda given to her by Morgaine and undermines Euberacon even as she pretends to work with him. She and Morgaine want Risa and Gawain dead because if Euberacon succeeds in using Risa’s Sight he will bring about the destruction of Camelot sooner than Morgaine would like. Kerra makes a bargain with the Green Man: she poses as a pretty woman bound to a rough man, the kind of woman Gawain has always fallen in love with before, to try to prove his feelings for Risa are only because he sees her as a helpless girl to protect and are not anything true or lasting. Gawain withstands her seduction, so in keeping with their bargain the Green Man transforms Kerra into a tree rather than destroying Gawain. Kerra is Risa’s foil: they are blessed with similar gifts and both want freedom to choose their own destinies, but Kerra becomes intoxicated with her power over others and as a result is impatient and overconfident.
The Green Man (The Green Knight): The Old God of the forest, ancient and powerful. He makes a bargain with Kerra to test Gawain’s honor and his devotion to Risa. Thus he plays the part of the Green Knight and Lord Belinus (Bertilak) to see whether Gawain will remain true or give in to Kerra’s seductions as he has in the past with other women.
Morgaine (Morgan): The Queen of Air and Darkness and Mordred’s mother in this version. She is behind all the attempts throughout the book to weaken and overthrow Arthur, mostly through her agent Kerra.
Kai (Kay): Arthur’s foster brother. He is crippled by an old injury that means he has to walk with a cane. He teases Risa when she comes to Camelot and discovers she has a sharp wit to go along with her pretty face. I liked him after his heart-to-heart with Agravain about dealing with their brothers who are passionate—and possibly foolish—in their love.
Gareth: Youngest of the Orkney brothers, he is Lancelot’s squire and worships his knight-master, to Gawain’s annoyance.
Merlin: Arthur’s magician. He is mysterious and wise, but nowhere near as cryptic or smugly annoying as other incarnations of him. He doesn’t appear to deliberately hide his knowledge, at least not in this story. When Gawain comes to him for help finding Risa, he freely admits her whereabouts are hidden from him.
Lancelot: Briefly appears and is portrayed as a skilled knight but hotheaded. Gawain at least doesn’t think much of him.
Geraint (Gaheris): The third Orkney brother. He is mentioned a few times but never actually appears.
I liked this book a lot. It cleverly combined both the Green Knight and Loathly Lady stories and boasted strong characters. I thought it dragged in the middle a little, and at the same time Gawain and Risa fell in love a little too quickly. There was no concrete reason given why Gawain’s feelings for Risa were different from his past loves (I suspect personality compatibility, but we’re never told and no one bothers to speculate on it), this was just fact and the readers had to accept it. It made the foundation of the story, their powerful love for one another, ring just the tiniest bit hollow. I will probably reread the ending many times without bothering to go through the rest of the book to get there.
Four stars. (I’d like four and a half, but the rating system doesn’t work that way)