King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

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 mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
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.

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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

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…

The Women Are the Heroes: Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon

This is probably one of the oldest books I own. Not by publication year but by the sheer amount of time it has spent in my possession, unread. Finally – thanks again to Ashley from Bookkeeping for the recommendation – I picked up this mighty tome and dove into this world of myths and magic and powerful women.

THE MISTS OF AVALON
by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Published by: Ballantine, 1982
Hardcover: 912 pages
Series: Avalon #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Morgaine speaks… In my time I have been called many thigns: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.

Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. A spellbinding novel, an extraordinary literary achievement, THE MISTS OF AVALON will stay with you for a long time to come….

We’ve all heard the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but never quite like this. If I had to sum up this book quickly, I’d say it’s Arthur’s story but from the women’s point of view – except that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Bradley delivers in this epic story.

It begins before Arthur is even born, with his mother Igraine, who is unhappily married to Gorlois, a man twice her age. The very beginning of this book already sets the tone of the entire novel. I remember first picking up this book at a young age (I want to say 14 or 15 years old?) and being shocked that a young girl of 14 could be married off to some duke or prince and already have had her first child! While I may know a little more about history now, I still felt the same unease when I read about Igraine – essentially still a child herself – think about childbirth and her marriage bed and wifely duties. And of course love has no place in that world. But Igraine’s roots are in the magical island of Avalon and her ties to that world of magic lead Viviane and the Merlin to Tintagel Castle one day to prophecy that Igraine will bear the King who will unite all of Britain.

I won’t recount all that follows afterwards. This is an epic tale that spans many years, introduces new characters, sees beloved characters die, but always focuses on the women. If there is a protagonist, it surely is Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter who is sent to Avalon to become a priestessof the Goddess. Meanwhile, Britain is at war with the Saxons, and another war rages, quieter  perhaps, but even more dangerous to all those who hold with the old faith. Christianity is on the march and while those who still live the pagan way have no problem accepting people of other beliefs, we all know the Christian God will have no others stand beside him.

The plot often revolves around who will marrie whom, who should succeed the King, who can bear a male heir to whom, and so on. That may sound boring but Bradley made it really exciting. It also shows the divide between love and “usefulness”. Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar’s romance is a well-known part of Arthurian legend but I liked how it was shown here. It’s not even so much a matter of lust but actual love. These two just want to be together but are forbidden by the rules of religion and society.
Gwenhwyfar was actually my least favorite character. She is crazy pious and hates everything to do with magic and Avalon and the old faith. But at the same time, that makes her a highly interesting chracter to follow because her own dreams and wishes go so decidedly against her faith. She wants Lancelet, even if that means she would be an adulteress.

The other main focus of the story is just that – faith against faith. While Morgaine and Avalon fight for their place in the world, Christianity rages over the country with no respect for what was there before. Throughout the book, pagan rites slowly become fewer and fewer, people bearing the tattoos of Avalon are less respected, there are accusations of witchcraft, and things generally don’t look good for Avalon and the Goddess. The women of Avalon also have a very different outlook on love and sex than Christian women. For a priestess, it is her who chooses the men she spends time with, and if she wants to sleep with several man, that’s fine. As you can imagine, the more pious Christian women think of the priestesses as harlots. To them, the man decides and they are basically their husband’s property, even if, deep down, they may not agree with that.

There is no way for me to tell you in one short review just how many things happen in this book. It’s 900 pages long, so that should give you a good idea… it’s a lot! When I think about it, there was plenty of talk about marriage and succession and religion, but the amazing characters made those mundane topics interesting. Marion Zimmer Bradley not only put women front and center, she also made them varied and believable. None of them are purely good or evil, they each have their own hopes for the future, their own reasons for behaving the way they do. Some of their actions are questionable, others understandable. But even though I did not like all of them, I appreciated each and every single one of these women as characters. That doesn’t mean that men are powerless – given the time and setting, men still hold most of the power, but the women surrounding them don’t shy away from pulling a few strings here and there.

It took me almost two months to read this book (I read other ones in between, savoring this one) and I feel almost sad to let it go now. While I can’t say that the plot was always riveting or action-packed, I also couldn’t point to a single boring moment. I found the world Bradley has created immersive and magical and it definitely made me want to read more Arthurian legends. I don’t know if I’ll continue with this series anytime soon because The Mists of Avalon can easily be read as a standalone and I’m quite happy with the way it ended.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Very, very good!