|Title: By Camelot's Blood|
Author: Sarah Zettel
Publisher: Prologue Books
Synopsis: (from the publisher) An evocative and highly engaging romantic fantasy set in the evocative time of King Arthur.
Laurel Carnbrea, Queen of Cambryn, arrives at Camelot to marry a man she has never met - Sir Agravain, the brother of the renowned Sir Gawain. Laurel has heard that Agravain is a reserved and cold man, but marriage to King Arthur's nephew will give vital protection to her own lands. However, before the marriage can be consummated, Laurel's new husband receives news that his father, King Lot, is dying, and he must return to his homeland of Gododdin in the north.
King Lot has been mad for many years - tormented by the sorceress Morgaine, Arthur's half-sister and deadliest enemy. Agravain and Laurel arrived to find the land of Gododdin in disarray and under threat of invasion from the Picts - led by Morgain.
Laurel has powers of her own, inherited from her grandmother, the Sea, and is prepared to use them to save the land of the new husband she is learning to love. By pitting herself against Morgaine she will face the gravest danger; and Agravain risks losing the woman who has finally managed to reach his heart.
Hooray for e-books! On a whim I was poking around Amazon and happened to come across the entire quartet for only $3 each. I own the first three in the series so I eagerly bought the last one so that I could continue my reviews. I will get around to For Camelot’s Honor eventually.
There seems to be some discrepancy about the names of the books in this series. One set of editions are simply titled ‘Camelot’s ---’, another set with slightly longer titles. Hence, this book is either titled By Camelot’s Blood or just Camelot’s Blood. Likewise this series is alternately known as “Paths to Camelot” or the “Two Ravens Saga”. Why this is, I can’t tell.
Warning for Spoilers
It is rare to see stories told about Agravain with him as the protagonist, even less about his love life. Here we see him in an arranged marriage with Laurel, the elder sister from Under Camelot’s Banner (or Camelot’s Banner, depending on which edition you have). I was intrigued for this pairing because after reading the other book it seemed kind of unlikely. I liked them both separately as characters, but I couldn’t see them as a couple being happy with each other because they were both so stiff and shut down. I am pleased to say I was wrong and I enjoyed them very much as a couple.
Here in this story we see the beginning of the end of Camelot. The death of Morgause/Morgan/Insert Evil Female Sorceress Here is often the catalyst that begins to tip the perfect façade of Camelot towards the breaking point. This story is no exception. The twist here is that it is not Agravain who kills the evil sorceress, but Laurel, while Agravain takes on Mordred.
So we start off with the marriage of Laurel and Agravain, who have never met until the day before their wedding. Laurel’s sister Lynet and Agravain’s brother Gareth are already married by this point, and Laurel has abdicated the throne Guinevere gave her in the last story in favor of them. Laurel and Agravain are separately worried whether they will be able to last a lifetime with their new spouse that they’ve never spoken to before, partially because of the rumors about each of them. Laurel, of course, is reported to be a sorceress because she has inherited magical powers from her mother, a daughter of the Sea. Agravain is reported to be so cold and uninterested in women that he will not be able to care for his lovely wife, let alone give her her conjugal rights. Both are pleased to find that once alone, they are instantly attracted to the other (that’s right, folks, in the arranged marriage plot we get a love at first sight, while Gawain, Gareth, and their partners had to wonder for 200 pages or more if their prospective mate was even interested). However, before they can consummate the marriage, they are interrupted by a messenger bringing the news that Agravain’s father, Lot, is dying, and that Morgaine has been spotted with her army heading towards Lot’s fortress Din Eityn in Gododdin (presumably Lothian rather than Orkney).
The main players in Camelot are soon in an uproar over this news. If Morgaine can take Lot’s castle, she and her followers can hold out indefinitely against any siege. No one wants this to happen, but opinions differ as to how to prevent it. Agravain and Arthur verbally spar over whether or not to send troops directly to Din Eityn or try to head Morgaine off before she gets there. Kai offers another solution: strike at Morgaine’s home base in the West while she is away. This doesn’t sit well with Agravain since it leaves his ancestral home unprotected. He storms off and meets up with Laurel, who suggests a fourth solution: secretly send word to Gareth and Geraint to attack Morgaine’s western stronghold from their own homes in the West while Agaravain publically stages an argument with Arthur and goes to defend Din Eityn “without” the King’s permission. They figure this will keep Morgaine’s attention on them because her typical M.O. is to cause internal dissent and have her enemies rip themselves apart. If they pretend to fight she will believe she is winning and perhaps not be as vigilant. Agravain and Arthur agree to the plan and stage a huge dust-up. Only they and Kai know that this argument isn’t real.
Laurel refuses to leave Agravain and accompanies him north, hoping she has enough magical power to halt Morgaine. Before they leave, Agravain and Laurel each separately receive knowledge from Merlin: Agravain learns that the knight who leads Morgaine’s army is Mordred, Arthur and Morgaine’s son; while Laurel learns that for Agravain to stay alive she must bring with them Excalibur’s scabbard. The scabbard’s holy properties (it has connections to the Holy Grail) mean that the wearer cannot be killed. She brings the scabbard despite Agravain forbidding her to take it.
After a quick stop for supplies and men in Londinium (and dodging a murder attempt instigated by Mordred), they arrive at Din Eityn and prepare for the siege. Lot dies fairly quickly after they arrive. A hasty coronation is held for Agravain and Laurel as King and Queen of Gododdin. However, Laurel soon is tricked by a spy for Morgaine into trying to speak with Lot’s spirit. The spy then tattles to Agravain, who loses his temper and throws Laurel out of the fortress with less than a day to go before the siege, not realizing until too late he is playing into Morgaine’s plans to divide them.
Morgaine and Laurel engage in what if we were in a different Arthurian retelling (Sword in the Stone) would be termed a “wizard’s duel”: they change into different shapes in order to destroy one another. Eventually Laurel tricks Morgaine and the sorceress is finally defeated for good. Meanwhile, Agravain and Mordred’s armies confront one another. The pair end up dueling and even though Mordred stabs Agravain, because Agravain is wearing Excalibur’s scabbard he is not wounded. Mordred manages to escape by the skin of his teeth. Presumably he will return later to actually kill Arthur and bring down Camelot as per the prophecy about him, but we don’t get to see it, as this is the end of the book. We get some vague hints in an epilogue from Kai as an old man as to what happens to everyone, but for all intents and purposes the story of the four brothers falling in love is over so Zettel is done writing. We never hear the outcome of Gareth and Geraint’s battles with Morgaine’s followers in the West, or several other plot points it looked like Zettel was setting up to be important in the series. Whether there was ever a fifth book planned is unknown but it’s a possibility given how much seems to be missing from this supposed finale.
Laurel (Lyonesse): Quiet, stoic and competent, Laurel has entered into the arranged marriage with Agravain in order to bind herself to the mortal world. As the oldest child of a water spirit who married a mortal, Laurel’s ties to the sea are strong and she’s afraid she is going to be tempted give up mortal life and become a water spirit like her mother. She abdicates her throne as Queen of Cambryn in favor of her sister Lynet and Lynet’s new husband, Gareth, in order to marry Agravain, the heir to another kingdom. As she is powerful magically, she is the only one who can even remotely stand up to Morgaine, but because she is largely untrained Morgaine constantly underestimates her.
Agravain: We know Agravain from the other books, although marriage to Laurel softens him quite a bit. He loves his home in Gododdin and is determined to protect it. He of course still has a temper, though it is hard to rouse it, and when he does lose it he makes mistakes. For a guy who was preaching to Gawain in Camelot’s Shadow about how women can’t be trusted, he falls in love with Laurel pretty fast. Clearly the smartest of the brothers, he has been planning for Morgaine to attack Gododdin since he came to Camelot as a boy.
Morgaine (Morgan): She makes her fatal mistake in this book, and not unlike her henchwoman Kerra from Camelot’s Shadow her mistakes are not realizing the consequences of making deals with supernatural entities, and sheer overconfidence. She believes she has thought so far ahead of her opponents she cannot lose. Of course we the Intelligent Readers know this is where a super-smart bad guy will always fail: in missing one small detail in the heat of the moment of supposed victory.
Mordred: How old he is in this series at any given point is hard to say. He’s described as a young child in Camelot’s Shadow, but six years later in this book he’s at least fifteen if not older. Apparently he’s whatever age Zettel needs him to be. He is the typical Mordred portrayal: dependant on his mother for his worldview, questions her somewhat but in the end just decides to roll with whatever she says, a really good diplomat and a pretty decent fighter. Presumably he will still fulfill his role of killing Arthur and bringing down Camelot sometime in the future, though how I’m not sure because Agravain and Laurel know perfectly well who he is and what his goals are.
Arthur: Shown to be deathly afraid of Morgaine, and it seems to be his only weakness as a king is that he is afraid to act against her. The reason for this lack of action is eventually discovered by Laurel (and it’s not Mordred’s existence). Still overall a wise king.
Guinevere: She and Laurel share a fairly close relationship because Laurel spent much of her formative years at Camelot. However, she is also wary of Laurel because of Laurel’s magic. She knows about Mordred, but what her opinions are on him we never find out. She is still Arthur’s full partner in ruling and as High Queen is included in all the councils.
Kai (Kay): Still the court wit, and probably the person Agravain is closest to at Camelot aside from Gawain. They think much alike.
Risa (Ragnell): Takes it upon herself to look after Laurel during the process of the latter’s marriage. She turns on Laurel after Agravain’s supposed treachery against Arthur. Laurel thinks she looks a little ill, but this is never mentioned again. Agravain also mentions to Lot that Gawain has a son, presumably with Risa, but the child is never seen or mentioned directly by his parents.
Gawain: As Arthur’s heir he is also a member of Arthur’s main councilors. Arthur and Agravain don’t let him in on the fact that Agravain’s “angry” departure is all an act to distract Morgaine because they agree he can’t keep a secret and his reactions must be genuine. The fallout from this deception is never explored.
Merlin: Sensing the end of Camelot is drawing near, Merlin is becoming increasingly more upset and withdrawn because he wasn’t able to prevent it. He gives both Laurel and Agravain the answers to some of their questions before they leave for Gododdin.
Lot: Began to go mad when Morgause disappeared, his downward spiral continued with the murder of his daughter Tania. Three of his four sons leave due to this incident, and in one of his few lucid moments he convinces Agravain to leave as well so that Morgaine never finds out Lot is deliberately keeping her attention on him so that she won’t torment his remaining children.
Morgause: We get hints throughout the book that she never really died after she confronted her twin Morgaine and disappeared. Eventually Laurel does discover what her fate was. She and Lot seem to have been deeply in love, which is an unusual take. Most authors have them indifferent at best, despising each other at worst.
Lynet, Gareth, Geraint, Lancelot: All briefly mentioned or make cameo appearances, but have one line or less.
About magic/religion: I have to mention something about the way magic and religion interact in this series. Magic is obviously real in this world, as Morgaine can do things like turn herself into animals, and the Old Gods such as the Green Man and the Lady of the Sea are a powerful presence. Yet in this book especially, Christianity is given just as much weight and power and has a stake in the outcome. Even characters with strong ties to the Old Gods like Laurel and Lynet are constantly praying to the One God of the Judeo-Christian tradition and seem to have no problems of conscience. Laurel even invokes Jesus Christ at one point to drive Morgaine away, much to Morgaine’s frustration. It is rare to see an Arthurian universe built where these two worldviews are not in some kind of conflict. That Zettel deliberately has them coexist peacefully is something I find interesting, and I wish she had found space to discuss it more. The characters just take it for granted that this duality is how the world is, but so many other Arthurian authors from Mary Stewart to Marion Zimmer Bradley to Gerald Morris make a point of there being some sort of conflict between the Old Religion/magic and Christianity that it amazes me Zettel takes the route that she does with no in-world explanation. I have no objections to their being no conflict between religions, but the way Zettel chose to craft the religious life of her characters where it’s unquestioned that they all (even the magic-wielders) believe in both was intriguing to me.
This had the makings to be the best of the four books. There were no random side adventures bogging down the plot, and the main characters were in love and allowed to show it. On its own it is a fine book. However, as the culmination the whole series it flops pretty badly. Yes, Morgaine is defeated, but there was a lot of buildup to the downfall of Camelot in the previous books that never gets mentioned again—such as Lancelot and Morgaine-as-Guinevere’s sex scene in Camelot’s Banner. I can only guess Zettel couldn’t bring herself to write the deaths of these characters she loves, so she just set the whole thing up in the background and assumed her readers were familiar enough with the legend to figure out why she mentioned all these things with no payoff. Yet she changes so much about the legends that it would be impossible to say that things will happen the way they’re “supposed” to in the future of these characters. So I’m not sure what happened or why Zettel just left us hanging. Or why the memory of Arthur’s great kingdom seems to have faded away into myth in less than a generation according to the frame story. Basically, just a lot of questions are left at the end.