Gabbiebii begins her time here reviewing one of my favorite retellings, Phyllis Ann Karr's The Idylls of the Queen. Please give her a warm welcome and enjoy her review!
|Title: The Idylls of the Queen|
Author: Phyllis Ann Karr
Publisher: Wildside Press
Synopsis: (from the goodreads) The arrangements for the dinner party were overseen by Queen Guenever herself. She selected the apples with her own hands. And before the evening ended, a young knight lay dead ... and Arthur's beloved, unfaithful queen stood branded as a murderess and condemned to death! Phyllis Ann Karr has taken Celtic legendry and given it a fresh new twist in this magical murder mystery of knights and sorcery, romantic entanglements and courtly intrigues. This is a tale that explores the passions and motivations of the men and women who stride through the pages of Mallory's romance: Sir Kay, the sharp-tongued seneschal; Nimue, the elusive Lady of the Lake; Morgon le Fay, Merlin's complex nemesis; the tormented sons of Lot and Morgawse; and Mordred, Arthur's own bitter, terrified son.
I started reading this book because an internet friend suggested it to me. She said it was one of her favourite books, and one of the best Arthurian retellings so far. I was curious, so I bought it. While it has been a pretty slow read (English is not my mother-tongue and so it took twice the amount of time I’d have put in if I had read it in my mother-tongue) it has definitely been a really pleasant one. I have to agree with my internet friend, it is one of the best retellings so far.
The cover is not so appealing, though. It has nothing to do with the plot at all. I’ve seen that there’s a better cover, featuring the poisoned apple but…unfortunately, I got the edition with the bad cover. I’m sad for this.
No Spoilers Here. Read without Fear.
An interesting twist, which makes that book stand out among the other Arthurian retellings. Idylls of the Queen is actually a detective story: we have the murder and a duo of ‘detectives’ who investigate it. It is one of the most original twists I’ve ever seen in a retelling, considering that usually Arthurian novels stick to the historical/fantasy novel genre.
Another interesting twist concerns the cast and is that the main character and POV is a character that doesn't have a huge role in the majority of retellings: Sir Kay. Usually he's a side character, sometimes confined in a very small role...here he's not only the lead character, he's the POV. Which is interesting because I think that's the only book so far that allows us into Kay's head. That said, you can see why I said that this is one of the best retellings around: it's original. It shows us a new perspective of a well-known tale..and that's what retellings are about. They are supposed to add something to something we already know and love. If they keep telling us the same story...I don't think there’ll be much point in reading them.
Queen Guinevere is hosting a dinner for a small circle of knights. Everything seems fine until the young irish knight, Sir Patrise, falls to the ground dead, by poison. Sir Mador, a relative of Sir Patrise, accuses the queen of the deed, and there's no way to prove that the queen is innocent except trial by combat. It seems easy but Lancelot -the queen's champion- is away and nobody knows where he is and the remaining greatest knights were all present when the deed happened and can’t fight in defense of the queen without seemingly admitting their own guilt. It’s decided that everyone should go look for Sir Lancelot, but Bors agrees to fight for the queen, drastically cutting down the time the knights have to find Lancelot. Meanwhile Sir Kay, who understood that the true target of the poison was Gawain due to his fondness of apples, decides to investigate personally on the matter and he manipulates the way the knights should paired off to search Lancelot in order to get some clue of who could have been the poisoner, pairing himself with Mordred. The rest of the story doesn't just show how Sir Kay resolves the case, but it's also an occasion to go deeper into the lives of the characters -like the Orkney clan. For readers who know Malory the end of the story won't be a surprise but no spoilers :)
-SIR KAY: As I said he's the POV. He's a very intelligent man, maybe more intelligent than the rest of the bunch, and also bitter and angry with the world. He's also not the best knight of the bunch-which is probably why he's so mad at the world, believing himself to be the best of all because of his brain while feeling it's his right to judge everyone. He's a very insecure man, and because of that he's overly critical with everyone. What I like about him being the POV is that it's clear that he's completely not a reliable narrator in his opinions of the other characters. Per say, he speaks pretty badly of Gawain while it's pretty clear to the reader that Gawain is infact a man of honor and a good man, and maybe he's all Kay wishes to be but is not. Same thing could be said about Gareth. He shares a fair amount of hate for Lancelot too, but we never have the chance of seeing Lancelot aside from Kay's tales and his opinions of him... so we can't really tell if Lancelot's as bad as Kay describes him or it's just Kay dying from envy. I usually don't really like Kay, he's always portrayed as a bad person in bad mood who criticizes everything and everyone without a true reason, but here Kay's really interesting.
-MORDRED: I have to confess that I haven't read other Mordred-centric novels because he's not a character that fascinates me so much, so I don't really know if his characterization here is standard or not. But I liked him. He's pretty... crazy, ehm. But smart, and he pairs well with Kay...the two of them makes a good couple of detectives. And he is a good fellow, after all. He tells Kay how his world basically fell apart when an hermit told him his destiny was to kill Arthur. You can really sympathize for this poor chap.
-THE ORKNEY CLAN: they have their chance to get developed, since eventually we are shown the family dynamics among them and some dark secret too, and they are amazing. Expecially Gawain and Gareth, no matter how bad Kay portrays them.
-MORGAN LE FAYE: she's...unpredictable. And pretty crazy, too. Before the novel she had kidnapped Lancelot in an attempt to ehm, rape him basically. And she keeps asking Kay to tell Arthur to come to her tower and see Lancelot's paintings from the kidnapping of his affair with Guinevere. But she’s of help to Kay and Mordred in their investigation.
-NIMUE: Nimue also helps Kay and Mordred with the investigations. It is she who, in the end, reveals the truth about sir Patrise’s death in front of everyone.
As I said it's one of the best retellings I've ever read. It's original, fresh and interesting plot-wise, really well written and features a good cast of characters (with some original twist also here). What I liked about the characters (and the characters are an important part of a book for me!) is that they are really well developed. Another interesting thing: we can totally see that impressions about someone/something change from person to person. What I'm trying to say is that things are heavily influenced by the narrator's perspective, in real life. Per say: In this book Kay judges Gawain negatively but we are shown that Gawain's not as bad as Kay describes him. So basically our first impressions about Gawain are influenced by the narrator's opinions. Only then we are able to see it better and to understand that there's more than meets the eye. And that HAPPENS in real life. Things can change from one person's perspective to another one's. And that's always interesting to see in a novel, when usually things are more static than in everyday's life.