|Title: King Arthur and Her Knights Series (Enthroned, Enchanted, Embittered, Embark, and Enlighten)|
Author: K.M. Shea
Publisher: Take Out the Trash
Pages: ~600 for all five
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) After posing with a rusty sword for a photo in a British graveyard, Britt Arthurs is pulled through time all the way back to the age of King Arthur where the shockingly young and handsome Merlin is waiting for her. The wizard has some bad news: the real Arthur has run off with a shepherdess, and whoever pulls the sword from the stone is to become the King of England. Unfortunately for Britt, the sword slides out like butter when she pulls it after fighting with Merlin. Long Live King Arthurs!
King Arthur and Her Knights Series
There are five fairly short ebook-only novellas in this series already and more planned. Due to their length, I will review the first five all together. The next book, Endeavor, will be released in late 2015 so I will try to review it in a timely manner. When it comes time to discuss plots and characters, I will do the plots of each book, the characters that appear in more than one book (most of the important ones do), and then characters that are unique to one book.
This series retells Arthurian legends with the premise that ‘Arthur Pendragon’ is in fact a twenty-first century woman named Britt Arthurs, brought out of the future to fill Arthur’s place when the real one runs away with a shepherdess instead of becoming King of All England.
It’s just as complicated to pull this off as you might imagine. Story tells me there are several retellings that exist which pull modern people back to Arthurian times (I admit I’ve only read part of the one I know about, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), but no other that she knows of that has a female time traveler taking the place of Arthur himself. I imagine most of the time traveling storylines are self-inserts, written by people who wish they themselves could visit Arthurian Britain for whatever reason. This is definitely not wish fulfillment, or if it is then K.M. Shea is an interesting brand of masochist. This feels more like a ‘what if’ scenario that nagged an author until she had to write about it. The situation Britt finds herself in is anything but enviable as she is faced with stepping into the shoes of a literal legend and in the process must give up everything she knew and held dear, including her own identity.
Britt Arthurs is an American tourist in twenty-first century England, on vacation with some friends to view historic sites. When Britt touches a rusty old sword stuck in a stone, however, she is transported magically back to Arthurian Britain. There she is met by Merlin, Ector and Kay, who inform her the real Arthur has run away so Merlin cast a new spell on the Sword in the Stone. The next person who touched it who could pull it out (i.e. is destined to be King) would be brought back from whatever century that happened to be. They are dismayed to discover the candidate is a woman but quickly decide her femininity can be hidden by binding her chest, disguising her female figure with armor, and giving it out that ‘Arthur’ has fay blood which explains why ‘he’ is so delicately pretty (for a man). Britt at first thinks the whole thing is a dream or a prank and reluctantly plays along as she is hustled around fulfilling the role of ‘Arthur’ in Merlin’s grand plan to unite all of Britain. Eventually she accepts that it’s all real, but by the time she does she has gone through all of the various trials of pulling the sword from the stone and is about to be crowned King. In the meantime she has won over the hearts of the common people and quite a few knights.
Merlin takes her to get a new sword from the Lady of the Lake, and Britt demonstrates her unique brand of people skills as she demands Excalibur from one of the most powerful magical entities in Britain while somehow managing to keep Nymue from getting mad enough to kill her. Then she must face her first battle as King, as Lot has formed an alliance with several other kings to challenge ‘Arthur’s’ right to the throne. Britt wins the battle and has survived her first test in her path to becoming the legendary King Arthur.
Britt is just starting to sort-of settle into her role as King of All England when she gets a warning from Nymue that Lot’s wife Morgause and their four sons are on their way for a visit. Morgause arrives and promptly puts a spell on every man who is not 100% devoted to ‘Arthur’ so their devotion belongs to her instead. Britt flounders as she struggles to figure out a way to break the spell, a feat even Merlin can’t figure out. She also recognizes she needs to make allies of Morgause’s sons, particularly the eldest, Gawain, who she knows is destined to become one of King Arthur’s greatest knights. Britt eventually figures out with Nymue’s help how to break Morgause’s spell by turning her men’s hearts back to her and making their loyalty ironclad.
Morgause works out Britt’s secret and is delighted; her whole purpose in setting herself against her ‘half-brother’ Arthur was because she believed a woman should be on the throne of England. She promises her loyalty and the aid of her sisters Elaine and Morgan, and as a token of goodwill leaves her sons as ‘hostages’ to become part of Arthur’s court so in the future Lot will be no threat. She also reveals Lot already has an attempt on Arthur’s life in motion.
Britt, Merlin, Kay, and her other protectors work to thwart the assassination. Merlin reveals just how extensive his powers are and that he’s willing to use all his skill to keep Britt alive. They survive, and are much stronger and more united thanks to Morgause’s meddling.
Britt discovers Leodegrance has the Round Table, which she knows is key to forming Arthur’s legendary court. However, the King wants ‘Arthur’ to marry his daughter Guinevere in exchange for giving up the table. Knowing Guinevere and Lancelot will one day betray her (there’s also the pesky fact that ‘Arthur’ is secretly a woman so her marrying anyone is tricky at best), Britt has to figure out a way to get the Round Table without having to get married. In the meantime, Lancelot himself has arrived at Camelot and Britt is unable to get rid of him as she longs to do because he is the son of King Ban, one of her closest allies.
Britt and her court hear that Leodegrance is under siege from Maleagant and forms a scouting party of herself, Merlin, Kay, Ywain, Gawain, Lancelot and Pellinore to see what can be done. Britt winds up fighting Maleagant herself and defeats him, and must then diplomatically refuse Guinevere’s hand again without giving up either of the real reasons. She discovers the pursuit of doing the right thing by everyone in her kingdom has a high cost, and will probably cost her personally the most of all.
Britt finally has the Round Table in her possession and is ready to create her legendary council of knights. To her mild chagrin, Guinevere has also come to stay at Camelot, though fortunately not as 'Arthur's' future bride. While holding a tournament in Guinevere's honor, Britt grants the request of Tor, the son of a cowherd who wishes to become a knight. Beginning with him, she instigates the Fellowship of the Round Table and declares that she will be sending them out on quests for honor and glory, and to defend the weak, as the need arises.
The first quest to present itself is that of the white hart and hound, on which she sends Tor, Gawain and Pellinore. She sneaks out with them herself, but is soon caught by Merlin and Kay. To make it up to her, Merlin takes her to visit his foster-father, Blaise. Blaise suggests to Britt that the legends of King Arthur she knows from the 21st century may have gotten changed from the truth over time, so perhaps she shouldn't rely on them so much to determine what is or isn't going to happen and just concentrate on being a just and fair ruler. Britt takes this to heart as she and Merlin deal with a plot against her life that potentially involves the Orkney brothers, of whom Britt has become extremely fond. Unbeknownst to anyone but his cronies, the culprit is actually Lancelot, looking to discredit some of Arthur's favorites.
This book starts off rather slowly, with Britt expressing her distrust of Lancelot with her closest companions. Lancelot, eager to gain favor and sensing her dislike, invites her out on a companionable ride with him. Britt gets kidnapped by a local baron who, unaware he's captured King Arthur, wants 'him' to serve as his champion in a petty dispute with his brother. Britt agrees to fight as a ploy to be released, but the champion of the opposing side turns out to be Lancelot, also in disguise and part of a search party looking for their missing king. Lancelot is not a very good loser at the best of times, and when Britt defeats him he stabs her in the back. At that moment the rest of the search party consisting of Bedivere, Ywain and Griflet appear, realize who it is Lancelot has just unchivalrously stabbed, and begin medical treatment. In the process they discover the king they had come to respect and adore is a woman.
They don't take the surprise at all well. Britt flees with a badly wounded shoulder while the knights return with their news to the rest of the Round Table. Most of the knights who didn't already know the secret also feel outraged and betrayed. While they argue, Britt, believing Camelot has fallen apart with the revelation, accidentally stumbles upon the real Arthur and gets a pep talk. She returns to Camelot and manages through sheer force of personality to regain control--and by telling the truth (except for the tiny detail that she's from the future). The knights agree to continue following her as 'King Arthur' and it looks like they will give her a chance to regain their trust. Anyone not in the Round Table, however, will not be told the secret.
More than one book:
Britt Arthurs/King Arthur: Britt is uniquely qualified to step in as King Arthur, which I guess is kind of the point in the Sword in the Stone choosing her—for all intents and purposes she is Arthur, and it’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question how much is Britt as herself and how much is Britt following what little she knows about the Arthur legend. Shea does a good job addressing most of the physical issues of a woman in her twenties passing as a fifteen year-old-boy who has to supposedly ‘grow’ into a man. The only thing not addressed is how they manage to conceal Britt having her period, which I admit I’m kinda curious about. It’s sort of a big point in any good narrative where you have a woman passing as a man for longer than a month.
Because she’s a 21st-century American woman, Britt is much more idealistic and empathetic than a medieval man would be, and she has the rights of women in particular keenly in mind. She has an unconscious charm about her that people are drawn to without quite realizing why (including, I admit, the reader). She sees the best in everyone, which turns out to be a strength and a weakness. In unguarded moments she can be sarcastic and abrasive, to the puzzlement of most of her counselors except Kay who seems to find her random outbursts of strange slang amusing. Britt’s homesickness for her true time and family have turned her into an insomniac, which only adds to ‘Arthur’s’ mythos because it gives ‘him’ and air of melancholy to be found wandering around Camelot’s walls like a ghost every night. She develops a crush on Merlin, the revelation of which nearly tears them apart in Embark. As the series progresses she becomes more and more comfortable in her assumed role, and begins to care deeply about her knights and the brighter future she's trying to build.
Merlin: Merlin in this version is not an old man, nor does he age backwards; he pretended to be an old man when he was actually a young teenager so Uther would listen to him. He’s now in his late twenties. His powers, however, are not a deception; though not as powerful as a true fay, he’s probably the most powerful mortal magic-worker alive. He starts out an utter douchebag, and fairly typically for a Merlin retelling plays everything by his own rules and annoyingly doles out information on a need-to-know basis. He is so focused on moving the pieces in his master chessboard in order to unite Britain that he completely misses that he’s screwing with the lives of real people, Britt in particular. Then he actually starts to get to know Britt, and a remarkable thing occurs. He realizes what an awful thing he did to her in pulling her out of her own time, away from the people who loved her and everything that was familiar. He can’t send her home; going forward in time is apparently impossible even magically. So he begins to subtly try to make it up to her behind the scenes. A Merlin who actually regrets his meddling and does something about it! It’s at about this point, towards the end of Enthroned, that he also starts to see what a great king Britt will make thanks not to some grand and glorious Destiny, but the person that she is.
Then something terrifying happens. Thanks to getting to know her, he starts to fall in love with her. He is far gone by the end of Enchanted, where he practically drains himself defending her from Lot’s assassins. From the things he says, it’s pretty clear he did it not to preserve the subject of his Grand Plan or even because he was protecting his king, but because he didn’t want anything to happen to the woman he loves. He was also reluctant to reveal the full extent of his powers to her until that moment because he was afraid she would fear him. When he discovers she reciprocates his feelings, in his horror at the implications for his Grand Plan he reacts in the worst way possible: he denies his own strong feelings so vehemently that he badly damages his friendship and working relationship with Britt.
Sir Kay: Oh my gosh Kay is awesome. This is one of my favorite versions of him. He's grouchy and brooding and shy, but is definitely fiercely loyal to Britt. Britt constantly is trying to get around the restrictions he places on her for her own safety. He is one of the few, along with Ector and Merlin, who know Britt's secret from the beginning.
Sir Bedivere: 'Arthur's' marshal, and one of the few knights in her small inner circle of royal officials who wasn't told about her gender. He takes the news particularly hard, but eventually decides to give Britt a chance.
Sir Ector: A fatherly figure who mostly stays in the background but is there for emotional support when Britt needs it. Turns out he knew the whole time where the real Arthur is and has visited him a few times, but respected his choice to not take his birthright and choose his own destiny.
Nymue: The sharp-tongued Lady of the Lake. She and Britt have a fight over Excalibur but later become allies. Pretty much all the female characters find out Britt is a girl before the male characters and Nymue is no exception.
Pellinore: An experienced knight, king and questor who is constantly after the Questing Beast, but takes time out to assist Britt. Originally an ally of Lot's, he is now a member of the Round Table despite being a King in his own right. Britt enjoys having him around and trusts his experience with quests, even though he can be flighty when he gets distracted by the Questing Beast. His eldest son is Percival, who has been mentioned but thus far has not appeared as a character in his own right.
Sir Ywain: Son of King Urien, one of Britt's enemies, but has defected to 'Arthur's' side without his father's knowledge. While a bit overeager, he is incredibly loyal. He has a hot temper, and takes the news of Britt's gender extremely badly, accusing her of lying about everything, not just being a woman. Eventually his temper does cool and he decides the ideals of Camelot are more important.
Sir Griflet: Ywain's constant companion, another eager young knight in 'Arthur's' court, and a distant relative of Bedivere. More even-tempered than Ywain, he looks to Lancelot for advice about courting the woman he loves and seems to be doing rather badly.
Sir Gawain: Eldest of the Orkney brothers, Britt knights him and makes him part of the Round Table. His first quest as a knight takes place in Embark. He's a relatively quiet and even-tempered young man, given the title of the Ladies' Knight thanks to what he learns on his quest. We discover just how awesome he is when it is revealed he knew all along 'Arthur' was a woman--Morgause told him--and has been loyally keeping it to himself and quietly trying to assist with the charade whenever possible. He talks his fellow knights down from their initial rage over the revelation and primes them to listen to Britt herself when she returns.
Sir Lancelot: One of the things that turned Britt off about Arthurian legends in general is the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere. Thus she is inclined to distrust Lancelot from the moment she meets him. This is another bizarre chicken-or-egg moment because it's Britt's prejudice against him that is driving the status-hungry Lancelot away from her. Not that I think he'd make that great an ally even if she had been nice to him from the beginning since he's clearly out only for his own glory and he's jealous of the devotion Arthur/Britt commands. The section in Enlighten following Britt/Arthur's kidnapping is somewhat amusing, because Lancelot thinks “of course the one time I didn't actually wish harm on the king and was trying to play nice, something bad happens!” It's hinted that now that he knows Britt is a woman he plans to attempt to use the knowledge to seduce her into giving him more power.
Guinevere: Britt is also inclined to distrust Guinevere upon meeting her, but she feels sorry for the princess's unfortunate position as a pawn to her father and finds it difficult to dislike her. Guinevere seems mostly a harmless, though not very bright, flirt. She also finds out Britt's secret and is unfortunately inclined to treat 'Arthur' as she would another woman.
Agravain: The second eldest of the Orkney brothers, he becomes Gawain's squire. He takes the revelation that their king is a woman surprisingly well and decides to support Gawain in loyalty to Britt.
Gaheris and Gareth: Still young boys in this version, they look up to their 'cousin' 'Arthur' as another parent figure.
Sir Tor: Shows up when Britt is granting boons to the peasantry and asks to be made a knight. While unskilled, he shows promise. His first quest is a success, and he also gains a dwarf squire to help him train. This sequence is very similar to how things occur in Gerald Morris's The Squire's Tale. Of all the knights who did not already know Britt's secret, he takes it the best, believing that since Britt saw fit to knight him despite his own humble background, he's fine with their king's unusual origins.
Morgan: Has been told by her sister Morgause about the true identity of their half-brother Britt/Arthur and also seems delighted with the turn of events. She loyally supports Britt however she can. She and Lancelot severely dislike each other.
Cavall: Britt's mastiff, trained by Kay to be her companion and protector. Not all Arthurian retellings include Cavall so I was pleased to see him here as an unjudging comfort to the out-of-pace Britt.
Ban: Lancelot's father and one of Britt's early allies in the war against Lot. Britt can't afford to offend him, so she can't get rid of his distasteful son without a good reason.
Lot: Morgause’s husband and the father of the four Orkney brothers. He puts together a coalition of kings to oppose 'Arthur's' lordship of all England. He a treacherous man (typical of Lot in Arthurian retellings), he tries to kill 'Arthur' from afar in Enchanted but does not actually appear.
Urien: Former member of Lot's coalition, but like Lot kept at bay because his son Ywain is a 'hostage' of 'Arthur' (really the younger generation all want to serve Arthur, even now that they know she's really Britt).
Morgause: Lot's wife and a powerful enchantress. Originally she had set herself to oppose her half-brother, but once she discovered he'd been replaced by a woman she became an ally and promised the additional support of her two sisters Elaine (Urien's wife and Ywain's mother, whom we have yet to meet) and Morgan. All she wanted was to see a woman on the throne, and to her the current situation of a woman in disguise as a man as King seems a pretty good solution.
Leodegrance: Owner of the Round Table, which Britt is eager to get her hands on. Also the father of Guinevere. He is a grasping man, willing to practically sell off his daughter for his own gain, which turns 21st-century Britt off completely.
Maleagant: A duke and ally of Lot's coalition to oppose 'Arthur.' He demands to marry Guinevere after laying siege to her castle, and Leodegrance is ready to give in to appease him. Britt serves as Guinevere's champion and defeats him. Those of us who know the Knight of the Cart story, however, also know he likely won’t stay gone.
Blaise: Merlin's mentor, he plays the role sometimes traditionally assigned to Merlin of being a wise old hermit dispensing advice. He has a fun sense of humor and enjoys teasing Merlin, to the delight of Britt.
Arthur: Here we meet the real Arthur, happily married to his shepherdess and living a humble life. He helps show Britt that she has already started to make a difference in England even if she was unaware of it--the common people are less harassed by evil knights and landlords since she started sending her knights out on quests to right wrongs and see justice is done. Ector has been telling him about his female replacement, Britt Arthurs, enough that he recognizes her right away when she shows up at his farm.
Mordred: He shows up at the very end, leaving lots of questions. Who the hell is this? He's obviously not Britt's son (I had a guess that when he did appear he'd be Britt and Merlin's child that they had to have raised in secret because they didn't want anyone to know King Arthur is a woman), so I have no clue who his parents are (perhaps Morgan's son?) or what his agenda is going to be or if he even has one. I assume this will be revealed in later books. I did not expect Shea to introduce him to the storyline this early.
Despite the short length of each of the stories, I find what Shea is doing with the legends really interesting. She obviously knows even the obscure ones relatively well and has done her homework on the evolution of the Arthurian mythos, if her author's commentary is any indication. She's making deliberate choices on her huge cast of characters' personalities and actions, sometimes combining who they are in different versions of the legend to make one composite character (she goes into detail in commentary about her process for combining Morgause and Anna, for example). While the Arthurian legends tend to be male-heavy, she never forgets the ladies and their roles—it's not just Britt and the dudes kicking ass and taking names, nor is it all about the women while the men have adventures in the background. As I mentioned before, this kind of 'time traveling into Arthurian legend' story lends itself easily to self-insert, especially when the time traveler is a woman, but that's obviously not what this is. This is building upon the admittedly strange premise that King Arthur actually was as idealistic and awesome as the legends say, but it's because 'he' was actually a woman from the 21st century who ruled in a completely different way than anyone medieval Europe had ever seen before and thus made a massive impression.
In my opinion, Enlighten is the best of the five thus far. The others are good, but the fifth book takes it up a notch. They should be read in order, however, or it will be hard to keep characters and events straight and follow the progression of relationships.
Average 4 stars for all 5 novellas.