Gwenhywfar: The White Spirit by Mercedes Lackey
I normally wait a day or two after reading a book to write the review. This gives me time to let the book settle, and for my opinions to solidify. I finished Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit by Mercedes Lackey over a week ago, and am still struggling with this review…
Gwenhwyfar is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, based on an ancient Welsh myth that says that Arthur actually had three separate wives named Gwenhwyfar. Mercedes Lackey decided to use this as a springboard to tell the story of the Gwenhwyfars, focusing on the third wife. The other two wives are bit parts, with the first one never actually appearing on stage, as it were.
This is a novel concept, and I was looking forward to a retelling of the Arthurian legend. I love authors who can take a familiar tale and make it their own. However, this story didn’t work for several reasons. First, the Arthurian legend is too much in the background. Arthur doesn’t come on the scene until almost three hundred pages into the book. Almost all the other elements of the Arthurian legend happen off stage as well, and are merely a minor part of the story. This wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself (for example, I love Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and that book doesn’t actually get to the Tam Lin faerie tale until a few hundred pages in either) except that we spend all this time watching Gwenhwyfar grow up and I can honestly say that I can’t remember the last time I read a character that was this much of a Mary Sue … which is the second problem.
Everyone loves Gwenhwyfar. Except the bad guys. And that’s how you know they are the bad guys — because they don’t love her. Actually, one of the bad guys does loves her, but in a bad way (because he is a bad guy). Gwenhwyfar is talented at everything she does. Both of the Goddesses blessed her at her birth, so she has a powerful ability to do magic, or she can be a powerful soldier depending on which one she chooses to pursue. When she chooses to pursue the Path of Iron, she knows that she will be forsaking magic, and won’t be able to do it anymore. Except she still can, because she’s that powerful.
Gwenhwyfar never disappoints anyone, her choices never have negative consequences, and she always gets what she wants (except one time, and then she gets something even better) without becoming spoiled or arrogant, and nothing is ever her fault. All of this combines to create a woman who, when she marries Arthur, feels like he is some sort of monster because he’s not in love with her and he treats her like a political marriage — the means to gain control of her father’s horses — which is what she is.
By the time we get to the familiar love triangle between Gwenhwyfar, Arthur, and Lancelin, I didn’t care anymore. This was the final damning problem. For an Arthurian retelling, this didn’t make me feel the magic of one of the most resilient and resonant legend cycles of all time. Arthur was a caricature, Gwenhwyfar was cloying, and Lancelin was the only one I felt any sorrow for. For tragedies to be compelling, you actually have to care about the characters, and I didn’t. Of course, when the entire world collapses around Gwenhwyfar, it is just to give her the opportunity to be amazing and serve as the bridge between the Old and New ways, and forge a new beginning.
All of this comes off sounding much more critical than I felt while reading Gwenhwyfar. I mostly felt disconnected rather than irritated. My frustration stems from how much I normally enjoy Mercedes Lackey — her Heralds of Valdemar trilogy is what started me reading fantasy. When a talented author and an interesting premise come together, I have high expectations, but those expectations were not met in this story. While it is competent writing, it was not enthralling, so I do not recommend Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit.
Pity. A very helpful review though.
@Sheila: I agree. There’s just sooooo much Arthur this and Arthur that out there, and it sounds like this one doesn’t add much.
Helen Hollick (whose fantasy I really panned in my review) wrote a great trilogy about Arthur — kind of rough and “gritty” — not pretty or romantic at all. Find it here.