Nothing to offer: Kiersten White – The Guinevere Deception

I had read one of Kiersten White’s books last year for the Retellings Challenge and, while I thought it missed the point of being about Egyptian myths, it was a nice enough teen romance. So I thought why not see what White does with Arthurian legends. The setup – Guinevere is dead and our protagonist is an impostor taking over her place – sounded exciting enough. Sadly, pretty much everything about this book ended up being lame and left me feeling very “meh”.

THE GUINEVERE DECEPTION
by Kiersten White

Published: Delacorte Press, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Series: Camelot Rising #1
My rating: 2/10

Opening line: There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.
To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.
Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

We follow a young girl impersonating Guinevere on her way to marry King Arthur. She has been sent there by her father, Merlin, to protect the king from a mysterious threat. What that threat is – we don’t know and neither does Guinevere. But she’ll just have to go to Camelot, marry the king (who is in on the whole thing by the way), and protect him from evil magic. By doing magic herself. Which is outlawed… but the king knows about it and lets her do magic in secret. Because reasons. Don’t ask too many questions, this book doesn’t make sense. It’s 350 pages of Guinevere making magical knots, thinking how hard it is to be queen (even though she never really does any queen stuff). Seriously, that’s it.

There is never a feeling of an actual threat. And because Arthur knows of Guinevere’s secret, this isn’t a source of excitement either. Guinevere doesn’t really have to pretend that much, she only has to convince people of being the real Guinevere who don’t get that close to her. There’s never any tension, there’s never the feeling that she has to watch out or risk being caught… any potential for thrilling plot points was taken right out of the book at the very beginning. Who does that?? Why not make Arthur unaware and Guinevere actually having the difficult job of convincing her new husband that she is who she says he is? I’ll tell you why. Because then you can’t have her fall in love with three separate people in one book.

The only, and I mean only, thing that made this book bearable was the magic used by Guinevere. She makes knots. I know, doesn’t sound that great, does it? But it was the only original idea that kept me vaguely interested in finishing this book. Guinevere knots her hair for protection, uses metal knots to keep the castle safe, and so on. This kind of magic always takes a toll, so either she has to use her blood to make a spell work, or she loses her eyesight for a while, etc. I love magic that comes with a price and while nothing is explained about this magic system, at least it was something that made me continue reading because I was hoping to learn more about it. Spoiler: no such luck.

The other thing that is probably supposed to hook readers is Guinevere’s real identity. I suspect this question will remain open until the end of this series, so I will never find out (and I don’t much care, to be honest). But unlike the three (!) potential romances, at least the question of who she is and why Merlin sent her to Camelot was mildly interesting.
Guinevere is missing a lot of memories yet she never seems to question this. It’s like “oh hey, I barely remember how I grew up, who my mother was, how I spent my childhood, or much of anything else about myself, but let’s just go with it because I HAVE TO PROTECT ARTHUR FROM SOME UNKNOWN THREAT THAT I’VE ALSO NEVER QUESTIONED!” While this might have been explained pretty easily – just invent something, author, that’s what you do for a living! – it never is and that makes Guinevere not only seem boring but also pretty damn stupid. Why should I care about someone who is presented as an intelligent and somewhat powerful character yet behaves like an idiot all of the time?

As for the romances and the “plot twist” about Lancelot… It was all so obvious and so lame. I would try to use a better word to describe it but lame actually encapsulates it perfectly. So Guinevere is married to Arthur and mostly has friendly feelings toward him. However, there are many scenes in which her heart starts racing or she wants to touch his hair or whatever, so a potential romance is implied. Then of course there’s Mordred who flirts with Guinevere pretty often and she reacts like a giggling teenage girl, not like a young woman on a mission to protect her husband and king. Aaaaand let’s not forget Lancelot because we all know how the legend goes. Apart from being just too much, there was also no distinction between Guinevere’s feelings for these three people. I had to roll my eyes so hard, you guys…

After three quarters of the book passed without any plot to speak of, apparently someone (author, editor, whoever) realized that something should probably happen. So we get a last minute threat which was presented as some kind of twist. But if you retell King Arthur’s story and use what everyone knows about that story, by no stretch of the imagination can you call it a plot twist. The shocking reveals weren’t shocking, the moment just fell completely flat. Just as flat as the characters whose only distinguishing qualities are their looks.

I did kind of like how Tristan and Isolde was incorporated into the story, even though the author drops that side plot pretty quickly, making it feel like token name dropping. This entire book was just a string of nothings held together by cardboard characters behaving like morons. Anything that could have been interested was immediately shut down by the author, leaving an empty husk of a book. No matter how many Sir Whatshisnames you mention, if you don’t show who the characters are, if you don’t show the world they live in, if all you do is tell me how Guinevere’s breathing quickens when lover A/B/C is nearby, then you’ll lose my interest pretty fast. The only brownie points go to the magic system and that’s being generous.

All things considered, this book had nothing to offer. I don’t know why I should continue reading this series. Even if we do eventually get more information about Guinevere’s origin, why would I read another 300 pages of her sitting around, thinking half-finished thoughts about some threat and making knots? The way Kiersten White churns out books, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was so bad, in fact, that it will probably be my last foray into her work.

MY RATING: 2/10 – Bad!

P.S.: It probably didn’t help this book that I read The Mists of Avalon only a few months ago…

A Shallow but Fun Teen Romance: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars

I was so excited when the book of the month for the 2019 Retelling Challenge ended up being one about Egyption mythology. I had a particularly hard time finding a book for that prompt, not because there aren’t any SFF novels out there, but because none of them interested me very much. But this sounded really interesting. A daughter of Isis and Osiris but in contemporary times? Sign me up.

THE CHAOS OF STARS
by Kiersten White

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
Ebook: 213 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4,5/10

First line: When I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world’s secret magic.

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you’re the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she’s only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there’s no such thing as a clean break from family.

This book started out so well. Isadora lives with her family of deities and all the weirdness that comes with that. Being the daughter of Isis and her reanimated husband Osiris isn’t easy, especially if you’re a teenager full of crazy hormones. But the biggest conflict of this story – and the most interesting thing about it – is the fact that Isadora doesn’t feel loved by her mother. You see, Isis has a new baby every twenty years (being immortal makes that pretty easy) and Isadora suspects that Isis does this simply so she can have one more person every twenty years to worship her and thus keep her alive and well. Being sixteen is hard enough as it is, but feeling like just another girl in a sea of worshippers just sucks! So Isadora wants to be away from home for a while and takes a flight from Egypt to San Diego, where her half-brother Sirus lives.

And this is where the story happens, which has next to nothing to do with Egyption gods. Isadora is forced to take a job at a museum where she is promptly allowed to turn her interior design hobby into actual work. Because sure, I guess lots of museums let 16-year-olds design a room filled with priceless artifacts. Isadora also becomes friends with her co-worker Tyler and, through her, meets the incredibly gorgeous Ry. Teen romance ensues.

If I’m honest, this book really wasn’t very good. I can (and will) tell you all the things that make it a shallow, silly, meaningless story, but I want to tell you first that despite its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just getting out of a reading slump – induced by books that were not as advertised and bored me to death – so this quick read about nothing much at all was just what I needed. The pages flew by, I never had to think very hard, the entire story was obvious and predictable from the start, but sometimes this is the perfect book!

So, on the things that worked and didn’t work for me. I really liked the idea of Egyptian gods living in our times and being… well, strange. We see glimpses of Isadora’s family in the beginning of the book, but we never really get to know them. There are short retellings of Egyptian myths at the beginning of each chapter but come on, I don’t want two paragraphs about the old myths if I can have the actual gods as characters in this story. The only interesting thing that sets Isadora apart from regular people is that she speaks all languages. Otherwise, she is a pretty standard YA protagonist, if a bit pale.

The side character fare even worse. Tyler is basically just a bubbly girl with no other personality traits whatsoever. Ry writes poetry and has pretty blue eyes. And is obviously crushing on Isadora (as is everyone else, by the way, because our heroine, despite being completely ordinary, is soooooo special). Isadora’s half-brother Sirus and his wife Deena don’t get much to say or do either. They are background decoration for a story that is already very thin.

The story – and by that I mean what you actually get to read about when you pick up this book – is about things like Isadora drinking slushies with Ry, Isadora being cynical about her mom, who has never, in this book, shown a single time that she doesn’t absolutely love her daughter. Oh yeah, and Isadora thinking love is a waste because we’re all going to die one day. I was sympathetic to her for a long time, but that is just the stupidest thing to believe and made me seriously doubt her intelligence.
Whenever the plot calls for something, it’s there. There is so much handwavium in this book, it reads more like something an actual teenager produced. Isadora is unfamiliar with a lot of American customs and societal norms (slushies) but has no problem using a cell phone and never even mentions that there may be other things her sheltered life among gods may not have taught her. We are also told all of these things, rather than being shown. We are told Isadora loves interior design and is obsessed with the constellation of Orion – we aren’t told why, so any impact these “obsessions” have falls completely flat.

There is also a sub-plot that is obvious from the start. When someone breaks in to Sirus’ house and steals only some protective amulets Isadora got from her mother, Isador gets scared for a while, but conveniently forgets about it when the plot calls for other thoughts (such as mooning at Ry’s blue eyes). Other things happen that make the culprit even more obvious but Isador – with all her supposed smarts – doesn’t get with the program. It’s like growing up with gods wiped out her brain cells and she behaves like a cardboard American teenager.

What I did like about the book, and what would have made for a much better story if the author had focused on this instead of a cheesy romance, was the mother daughter relationship between Isis and Isadora. The child feels unloved, the mother does everything in her power to protect her daughter, and yet somehow these two can’t just get together and work out their problems. The resolution of that plot string was also visible from miles away but I found it quite lovely, nonetheless.

I also enjoyed the tone of the narration. Again, it’s pretty standard. A snarky teen heroine narrates (why in present tense, though?) her story and adds all sorts of commentary about her weird family. There is a surprising amount of room descriptions (interior design is Isadora’s thing, remember) and certain passages feel almost like we’re actually reading Isadora’s thoughts. She interrupts herself, catches herself mid-thought, and so on. Nothing about this style is original and the language itself is very basic because… well, people don’t think like a thesaurus, right? But the bottom line is, it was fun to read this story from Isadora’s point of view, even though she can be incredibly thick at times.

So all things considered, this is actually a pretty bad book. It has no depth, no characterization, the mythology is window dressing at best and has no impact on the plot (serioiusly, everything could have worked without magic or deities as well), and the romance wasn’t particularly swoon-worthy either. It was… nice, I guess. Again, I absolutely enjoyed racing through this book, it was like a holiday for my brain, and I’d recommend it to people who don’t usually read much or simply need a break from heavier fiction. But while this book came to me at exactly the right time, I still can’t give it a high rating. I will probably check out one more Kiersten White book because I hope her writing has improved over the years. If it hasn’t, that’s one author I can check off my list. Too fluffy, not enough substance.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Kind of bad