The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.
UNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
My rating: 5.5/10
Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?
Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?
I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.
With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.
This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.
So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.
A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.
Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.
I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.
So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.
As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.
MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh