At this point, I think the teen heartthrob version of King Arthur might be displacing the venerable monarch version. Between that BBC Merlin series, Avalon High, and the seemingly never-ending Mordred in Leather Pants novels that just keep coming and coming like my own personal karmic retribution, people just seem to have a lot of interest in Young Arthur lately. It’s probably a symptom of our youth-obsessed culture or something. I tell you, back in the good old days, young Arthur got shamed — shamed! — for his beardless face. Granted, in this case “the good old days” means Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so perhaps a bit of change is to be expected by now.
Grumpy Arthurian fanboy that I am, I sigh over the trend but also can’t stop myself from reading anything Arthur-related that comes under my nose. Which brings us to Kiersten White‘s The Guinevere Deception. In this retelling, we follow Guinevere — actually a mysterious magician and student of Merlin who has taken on the identity of the deceased princess — as she marries King Arthur and pursues magical threats against Camelot. Faux-Guinevere’s origins are the source of much mystery, as are the plans of Merlin, who seems to be playing some kind of three-dimensional chess above the heads of everyone involved.
White builds her world solidly, and breathes life into the supporting characters of her Camelot. Hints about Guinevere’s identity are well-paced and tantalizing, and dialogue and imagery are well-handled. Arthur is cast as something like a youthful version of Tennyson’s ideal king, groping for perfect regal remove but still young and insecure enough to need friendship. Lancelot, while bearing almost no resemblance to most other iterations, is an engaging new take on the figure, and the story boasts many exciting in its twists and turns. I loved some of the story’s dramatic moments and emotional beats, and really admired some of White’s attention to detail in pivotal scenes.
And yet… I also have reservations. The plot is decent, but also fairly slow getting started. The knights and ladies are lively, but fall easily into well-worn tropes and archetypes. The setting is charmingly fairy-tale, but never gives much impression of another time and place. Granted, this is a typical YA issue, but it still becomes a little grating over time. The world-building is solid, as I said above, but also at times shallow: White goes into how Arthur keeps his streets clean of human waste, but otherwise leaves the vague impression that the characters probably have electric lighting and central heating (not because they actually do, but just because that’s the level of comfort that seems implied).
Meanwhile, the revisions to Malorian canon consistently seem interesting at face value, but leave a lingering impression of unrealized potential. For example, Isolde is a lesbian in this iteration, in love with her maid. That’s a cool idea on the face of it, but making Tristan and Isolde into Brangien and Isolde is sort of like revising Romeo and Juliet so that Romeo was actually in love with Mercutio the whole time. That’s good for them, but Mercutio’s not a Capulet, so we lose most of the dramatic context in favor of a more generic forbidden love story. Hell, if you were going to make Isolde gay for someone, White, it should’ve been Tristan. Can you imagine Tristan, orphaned and grief-haunted harpist, as a woman in love with her uncle’s queen? Can you imagine the circumstances whereby King Mark’s depressed niece, of all the Cornish, chooses to face the Irish champion on a misty rock in the ocean and somehow prevails? That’s really cool! To hell with the maid. Her big event in the tradition was forgetting to guard some magic wine.
I recognize that a lot of that last paragraph is just my personal bias coming out, so I won’t go any further down that road. Overall, The Guinevere Deception is a mixed bag for me. To try to distill my thoughts, I think that the story is entertaining and well-crafted, but also a bit unambitious. It’s indisputably a good YA novel, but it needs to reach a little further to stand out from the pack of Arthurian stories.