Idylls of the Queen – Phyllis Ann Karr

Thoroughly enjoyable Arthurian mystery, treating the same episode in Malory as Dark Jenny, which I reviewed for Ideomancer. That is, the poisoning of Sir Patrise and the false accusation against Guenevere, which makes for a good mystery framework. The authors take rather different approaches, though– Dark Jenny features an original character from an ongoing series, while Idylls of the Queen rehabilitates Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster-brother, making him a hero in his own right. idylls_of_the_queen

I picked up this book to scratch my “sympathetic Mordred” itch– my copy of The Winter Prince is out of state. Mordred is a major supporting character, like Kay trying to solve the mystery of who poisoned Sir Patrise, as it is suspected that the poison was aimed at his brother Gawain. This Mordred is sarcastic, infuriating, sharp-witted enough, loyal to his mother, and tormented by the knowledge that he is prophesied to be the downfall of Camelot. This makes him suicidal, but as by medieval standards a suicide damned his soul, he mostly tries to get other people to kill him. His humor, and Kay’s skeptical narration, stop his character from being weighed down by angst.

So it scratched the Mordred itch, but this book also dug up my Gawain feelings from way back when I read Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight– which is clearly an influence on this portrayal of Gawain. He’s far from perfect, but he’s honorable to a fault.

And what of Kay, the main character? He’s pragmatic, being a seneschal and not much of a fighter (in fact, he loses the climactic fight with the bad guy). He’s the guy who makes sure everyone gets fed, not the guy who goes off on quests, and he has a cynical attitude towards glory-seeking. Oh, and he’s desperately in love with Guenevere– which accounts for his bitterness towards Lancelot, who is Sir Not Appearing in this Book. Kay’s a fun narrator, but I found my sympathies more deeply engaged by the Orkney brothers. The emotional climax of the book is when Kay gathers the brothers together and makes them face some unpleasant truths.

The book bogs down for a bit in the middle, when they’re visiting Morgan le Fay, and also the villains tend to be unsympathetic from the get-go– both sanctimonious in different ways. But those are minor flaws, as the novel picks up towards the end and repays the investment. At the end of the book, I was only sad there wasn’t more.

No Human Hands to Touch (short story in Sirens and Other Demon Lovers) – Elizabeth Wein

‘Medraut,’ I murmured, ‘Do not call me Jocasta, or I will let you borrow my brooches…’

Have this story (published in “Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers,” available as an ebook) on hand immediately after reading The Winter Prince (which I highly recommend you do!). Told from the point of view of the antagonist Morgause, it fills in some of the protagonist Medraut’s backstory, which is darkly hinted at in the book. It shares an amazing atmosphere with the book which isn’t apparent in the sequels: It’s full of tension, self-destructive pride, defiance, messed-up family relationships, cruelty, and loneliness.

His lips curled back, barely, and he croaked at me, ‘I do not need your brooches.’

The Winter Prince – Elizabeth Wein

“‘Have you ever loved anything?’

‘Yes. Yes. All the wrong things. The hunt, and darkness, and winter, and you, Godmother.'”
This is a book I wish I had written.

It is a first novel, and cool and sharp and glittering, like a heavy, hanging icicle. It is very dark, with just enough hints of the backstory to let you fill the rest in for yourself.

It is an Arthurian retelling, focused on Mordred, in a version in which Arthur has legitimate heirs.

The narrator, Medraut, is complicated and brave and oh-so-fallible, like his siblings and father, the other central characters. He addresses his narration to his mother-and-aunt Morgause, who is terrifying- sadistic and false and capable of cutting to the bone.

The ending departed slightly from the subtlety of the rest of the book, spelling out the epiphany, but that’s a minor complaint. The voice is intense, deliberate, engrossing.

The Winter Prince is a short read, just over 200 pages, and a brilliant one. There are sequels, but they branch out further from the Arthurian setting and don’t seem as good. This one stands alone, and is a masterpiece.