Monday, March 25, 2013

Sword of the Rightful King

by Jane Yolen

Grade: 2 stars
Story summary: Gawain and his brothers leave their home in the Orkneys and their witch mother to go to King Arthur's court. Meanwhile at King Arthur's court, Merlinnus comes up with an plan to solidify Arthur's standing as king of Britain, and a mysterious boy shows up to be apprenticed to Merlinnus.

Thoughts: There was great potential here, I thought. The story of the Orkney princes (Gawaine and his brothers Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and sometimes even Mordred), their cruel, clever mother, and strange, isolated upbringing could make a fascinating story, if told in the right way. And King Arthur is almost always a fairly complex figure, generally struggling with insecurities and betrayal and all those things kings have to deal with. The problem is--frankly, I just don't think this was very well written. There was Gawaine and his brothers, interrupting the Arthur/Merlinnus/Gawen storyline, for no apparent reason that I could see. Did the two storylines ever really mesh? I mean, Gawaine & brothers arrived Cadbury (this book's version of Camelot), and spoke to Arthur and all that. But they could have been skipped entirely without any change to Arthur's story, as far as I can tell. It gave a general lack of coherence to the book. Many of the characters could have fleshed out a lot more as well, and I thought the dialogue could have been much more interesting.

Perhaps it's mostly that all the best ideas in this book have been done much better elsewhere. The Winter Prince and The Once and Future King properly get into the twisted familial relationships usually present in the King Arthur legends (although I think they were both  a bit too dark for this kind of book). Robin McKinley did a similar sort of story line to Gawen's in Outlaws of Sherwood (again a retelling of a legend), except much more exciting and well put-together. And finally, while reading, I was frequently comparing King Arthur's scenes with similar ideas in The King of Attolia. Now that is how you write a king winning over his people.

In the end, I would still suggest this for people who, like me, will read anything they can get their hands on that features Sir Gawain in an at least semi-positive light*. Or maybe for younger teens, who might be able to glean some of the themes only passed by here, and won't notice the missing depth.

*Sir Gawain has always been my favourite of Arthur's knights, for his growth in character after his first miserable adventure (chopping of that women's head) and the Green Knight adventure, for his brothers and mother and their weird dynamic, and for the fact that he wasn't Sir Lancelot.

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