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Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, and In Winter's Shadow by Gillian Bradshaw (re-read.)

This is a 6th century Romano-British Arthur, struggling to preserve the "Light" of Rome in the face of bickering British kings and invading Saxons. However, although rooted in history, it's very much a fantasy series, with several sorcerous characters, a sojourn in fairyland, and much mention of the battle between Light and Dark.

The first novel is narrated in the first person by Gwalchmai (i.e. Sir Gawain). Showing no aptitude for the warrior skills valued by his father, he instead becomes an adoring pupil of his mother, the sorceress Morgawse. Some years later, in a flash of insight, he realises that his mother is evil, and he flees, pursued by her curse. Following a visit to the otherworld, he emerges to find that he's levelled up enormously, and now has a magic sword which he has pledged to use in the defence of Light. He tries to take service with Arthur, but Arthur has his own reasons to fear and distrust anyone close to Morgawse, and rejects him. The novel follows Gwalchmai's attempts to win Arthur's acceptance and demonstrate that he is free of his mother's taint.

The second novel is set around 10 years later, when Arthur's rule is in its prime, and is narrated by one Rhys ap Sion. When a wounded Gwalchmai, now one of the most famed of Arthur's men, takes refuge in Rhys' family's farm, Rhys volunteers to become his servant. Gwalchmai is determined to track down a woman he wronged when he was 18, and searches for her whenever he can. A diplomatic mission takes him to Gwynedd, where he encounters his mother again, as well as Medraut (Mordred), his brother - a charming, plausible liar, who has the gift of making everyone who meets him take his side, even when we, the reader, know that every word is a lie...

The final novel is set a few years later, and is narrated by Gwynhwyfar (Guinevere). Medraut has been at Arthur's court for several years, and is winning over more and more followers with his lies. Everything is grim and dreadful, and Gwynhwyfar is so very tired and stressed, and Arthur, whom she loves very much, is caught up with his own woes, and... Oh, you all know how it ends. I can't bear to write it here.

I love this series, although it really is such a painful read towards the end. Out of all the Arthurian books I've read, this is the one that affects me the most intensely. The characters and their emotions feel so real, and what Arthur's trying to achieve feels so important, so precious, so doomed. Most of the pain lies in the third book, of course, but I find the latter half of the second book almost as hard to read, from the moment that Medraut begins to win good men over to believing his plausible lies. But I do particularly love the second book, though. Rhys is a sensible chap, and I like hearing his take on things. I can never resist outsider viewpoints, so I loved seeing Gwalchmai, whose story we heard in the first book, through Rhys' eyes.

Knights of the Round Table series by Gwen Rowley (Lancelot, Geraint, and Gawain)

Although billed as a series, these are really stand-alones. Gawain is officially the last one, but I read it first. I found it lurking on my Kindle, though I can't remember when or why I downloaded it. I turned to it because it looked light and fluffy and silly, and Gillian Bradshaw left me emotionally scarred and in need of such things.

Gawain retells the story of Gawain and the Loathly Lady. In this version, she's an old flame of Gawain's, who magically disguises herself as the loathly lady in order to entrap Gawain into marriage, to punish him for a past wrong. Needless to say, she comes to realise that it was all a horrible misunderstanding. She still loves him, and that he has never stopped loving her, and has spent the intevening years all consumed with nobly-borne ANGST. Unfortunately, by now she has become stuck in Loathly Lady form. Will they ever get their happy ending?

I actually rather enjoyed this one, after an unpromising first few pages. It's a fluffy romance, and I'm not claiming any greatness for it, but I enjoyed it. It's a simple, compact story, and it includes some of my guilty pleasures - i.e. hidden identities, and contrived angst-ridden misunderstandings between lovers, and revelation scenes. I liked the way that the heroine, when in Loathly Lady mode, felt liberated to stomp around being grumpy and outrageous, upbraiding warriors as if they were naughty schoolchildren. Shades of Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle, here.

I then moved to Lancelot. Lancelot and Guinevere appeared in the Gawain book, but in a rather unfavourable light. This book explains why they appeared the way they did. It's the story of Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek, but presented very much as a made-for-each-other romance. In this version, no magical trickery lures Lancelot into Elaine's bed, and although scurrilous rumours link him with the queen, there's nothing between them. I found it all perfectly okay, but rather over-long, and it suffered from the problem I often have with romance stories, in that we're supposed to believe that these two people are made for each other even though they've spent barely five minutes in each other's company.

Geraint tells the story of Geraint and Enid, but little resembling any traditional version of the tale. This Enid is a warrior woman from a tribe in Devon where warrior women train young men in the arts of war (and love.) Armed with magical gifts from the Lady of the Lake - gifts that require her to wallow naked in moonlit ponds every few nights - she comes questing to pick up training tips from Camelot, seemingly with no perception at all about how inappropriate it will seem when she leaps around wearing only a short jerkin with nothing underneath. After a few hours of aquaintance, Geraint is inspired to marry her to "save" her from the cruel need to be a warrior woman. When he realises that his assumptions were wrong, he gets cross and grumpy, and they embark on a long, sprawling journey, with many arguments en route, and many sex scenes, and much moonlight wallowing in ponds. I found the whole thing very silly, annoying and tedious.

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutliff (re-read)

I re-read this as a prelude to reading Sword at Sunset. What can I say about Rosemary Sutcliff? I loved her books when I was young, although this one I didn't actually read until I was at university. It tells the story of Aquila, 18 at the start of the book, serving in the Roman cavalry. When the order comes to abandon Britain, he deserts, but is soon captured by some Jutish raiders, after seeing his father killed and his sister Flavia carried off by Saxons. Later, when the Jutes who took him return to Britain, he escapes, and makes his way west, where one Ambrosius Aurelianius is rallying the defenders of Roman Britain. The book covers a good 20 years, and follows Aquila as he deals with marriage, fatherhood and the enduring bitterness he feels about his sister, while fighting alongside Ambrosius against the raiders who threaten their attempt to preserve the last vesiges of Roman civilisation.

This was published as a children's book, and won the Carnegie Medal when it came out. I'm really not sure why it's counted to be a children's book. All the characters are adult, and there's some pretty dark content here. The word "rape" is never used, but it's entirely clear to adult readers that this was Flavia's fate. Aquila himself, emotionally closed off as a result of his experiences, makes a loveless arranged marriage, and his wife is clearly miserable at first, yet a son is still produced. There are complex emotions here, and while I'd never say that such things are unsuitable for children, the whole thing reads more like an adult book to me. But, either way, it's great. And it paves the way for...

Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff

In The Lantern Bearers, we meet Ambrosius' nephew, young Artos, who grows over the course of the book from a boy to a charismatic leader of men. He is, of course, Arthur, and here he tells his story in the first person. It starts just days after the end of The Lantern Bearers, and some of that book's characters appear, but this one is published as an adult book.

This is very much a historical Arthur, with no magic at all, although at times we see the seeds of future legends and songs. The book covers several decades, from the beginning of his fame, to the inevitable tragic ending. This is the Arthur of Nennius, with his 12 great battles. It felt to me very much like a Rosemary Sutcliff book that happened to be about Arthur, rather than an Arthurian retelling that was written by Rosemary Sutcliff, if that makes sense. Many of her familiar themes are here, as well as her familiar view of British history, but here everything seems to come together in a culmination. It probably never happened like this, but it feels as if it could have.

It is all really rather awesome. It didn't always grab me in the first half, especially in the battle scenes and the horse breeding, but from the start, I loved all the scenes between people. Her understated but emotionally-charged scenes between two characters are always excellent. My appreciation of it wasn't sharp and fierce; I never sat there gripped, feeling that it was impossible to put the book down. Rather it was slow and warm and deep. It slipped into my dreams. It's one of those books that I feel will change the way I look at a lot of things - will change the way I react emotionally to certain places, to certain periods of history, to certain themes, certain words.

It didn't break me in the way that Gillian Bradshaw's books did, but I cried at the end, and at several times during the book. I think it's inevitable that I will be reading this one again one day.
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