Pros: Some very original takes on Grail mythology.
Cons: Novella format doesn’t always allow the reader to get a full understanding of the mythology at work.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group
I have to admit, I really enjoyed “The Da Vinci Code”, so when I saw “Chalice of Roses” on the top of my review stack I knew that I was going to enjoy it. Sure enough, it was an enjoyable blend of styles, ideas and settings. From medieval times to the current day, and from the wilds of Scotland to English drawing rooms, this book is a fun and romantic exploration of Grail mythology.
Jo Beverly’s The Raven and the Rose is set in medieval times, when a young nun named Gledys must venture out into the world to find the man she is destined to marry, so that together the two of them can summon the Grail and bring peace to England. The story is a skillful blending of both Grail lore and the age of Chivalry, but there are so many different Grail theories that I found some of the lore explanations perfunctory and inadequate. Readers who don’t mind being given just a few relevant facts probably won’t be as confused as I was, but I wish a little more attention would have been paid to why the mythology works the way that it does, because it makes it easier to get a sense of where it fits in with other theories.
That being said, the reader gets some really interesting glimpses into the everyday life of the Medieval era. We get to watch Gledys experience both life at a nunnery and at a tournament (which I found fascinating from a woman’s perspective), and we also get to see some of the behind-the-scenes activities at the tournament that are usually glossed over. This isn’t a grand tale of lords and ladies, but rather a story of two people who have roles to play in the fate of a nation, and I was enthralled by the unusual perspectives. There is a great affection for the time period that shows through in the depictions of everyday life.
The White Rose of Scotland, by Mary Jo Putney, is set during World War II and is another send-up of the “keep the Grail out of Hitler’s hands” plot. As such, for me the plot felt a little unoriginal but the addition of Grail Guardians with magical powers adds a refreshing twist. A Scottish Grail Guardian named Jane is thrown into the life of a Canadian aviator named Sinclair. Together the two of them must defeat the powerful magician that Hitler has sent to obtain the Grail, and along the way the two of them discover that they make a pretty good team.
While the plot did feel a little stale to me, I did enjoy all of the complex layers that magical Guardians added to the plot. The system of magic at work is well-explained, and fits seamlessly into the world and time. I also appreciated the fact that while Jane was willing to do what was necessary to take care of the Grail, she didn’t immediately embrace Sinclair as her destined partner. She’s fairly independent, and cautious with her heart; both traits added depth to her for me and made the story richer.
My absolute favorite of the book was Karen Harbaugh’s The English Rose: Miss Templar and the Holy Grail. If Jane Austen and Grail mythology ever had a love-child, this would be it. It’s a humorous look at Napoleonic-era British society, while at the same time it’s also a Grail adventure. I started laughing at the first lines of the story, and couldn’t stop after I’d finished. (There’s a wonderfully witty remark about Lord Byron that had me nearly in tears, I was laughing so hard.)
The thing that I loved the most about this story was the way that everything was turned around; it made the story much fresher for me because it felt completely original. (I figured out the twist a while before it was openly declared, but I loved it so much that I didn’t mind at all.) I also loved the wit and humor of Arabella and Will as they try to complete their mission. I simply adored this story; even if you don’t read the rest of the book this one is worth reading.
Another interesting fusion, this time of Grail lore and the Fey, can be found in Barbara Samuel’s Eternal Rose. In this novella, Alice has gone to Scotland so that she can teach while researching elements of Grail lore found in local songs. There she meets William, a man who has been enchanted by the Fey and must wait until a woman falls in love with him, finds the Grail, brings it to the land of the Fey, and lets him drink from the cup. I loved the way that the lore of two very different systems was fused together in a way that made complete sense; because that seamlessness kept me on the edge of my seat as I read, wanting to know if Alice would succeed or not.
The barriers between reality and the Fey are very thin, so thin that the Fey can walk among humanity during certain times and enchant them. It gives the reader the feeling that anything is possible, because magic has so many different ways that it can intersect with reality. This actually had the interesting effect of making the Grail less overtly Christian to me, and I really enjoyed the concept of two different magical systems both being true at the same time. That duality fascinated me throughout the story.
The novellas in this collection are all well-written and enjoyable, and while all of the stories may not appeal to everybody many people will find something to enjoy. Despite systems not always being well-explained and some elements feeling stale, these stories are written with warmth and affection, as well as wonderful humor and romance. Let’s hope that there might be more books like this soon!