"Gwenhwyfar, The White Spirit," Mercedes Lackey

Pros: Stunning, emotionally affecting, and did I mention stunning?
Cons: None
Rating: 5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Gwenhwyfar is the daughter of a Celtic king. She lives in a small, drafty castle with her parents, her three sisters, and a few servants. Her mother is a renowned wise woman, and Gwen is expected to follow in her footsteps. Gwen, however, has other interests, and it soon becomes clear that the goddess Epona has chosen Gwen for the warrior’s path. She becomes so renowned as a scout that the Saxons come to know her as the White Spirit, and they fear her. Unfortunately, duty comes before desire, and when a new queen loyal to the old ways must be found for High King Arthur, and Arthur wishes to bargain with Gwen’s father for his famous warhorses, Gwen becomes a part of the deal, much to her dismay.

Of course, many obstacles stand in the way of duty as well. Gwen’s little sister desires her crown. Arthur’s bastard son Medraut desires both Gwen and his father’s throne. And Gwen feels like a prisoner in a golden cage.


 

Most of the Mercedes Lackey books I’ve read before now have been blatant wish-fulfillment fantasies. Those are fun, and I definitely enjoy them now and then, but they’re also a tad simplistic. Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit takes the best parts of the style I’m used to, but combines them with a less simple story (and one that’s all the more emotionally affecting because of that). Mercedes also takes a very original and unique view of the Arthurian tale, one that Arthur and his companions only marginally figure into. Instead of fantastical castles and views of knights more appropriate to time periods much later than Arthur was meant to fit into, she works with small, drafty keeps and rough-hewn warriors. It’s a time when richly-dyed cloth was an incredible luxury, and even a princess wore hand-me-downs and shared a single pony with her sisters. It’s also a time of magic, Druids, and Fair Folk, even as Christianity attempts to set down roots in the lands. And Mercedes gives us a blessedly even-handed and three-dimensional view of such things, not turning one side or the other into a simple villainous whole.

The characters are lovely and enchanting; the world is depicted so vividly you can see and feel it; and the action is swift, smooth, and gut-wrenching. Gwenhwyfar is a riveting read, with plenty of surprises and yet also plenty that will be familiar to those who love the Arthurian myths. I wouldn’t have thought there was much new left to do with those myths, but clearly I was wrong. This is one of my favorite visions of the Arthurian tales so far, and it brought tears to my eyes more than once.

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