Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Review: Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

Book: Here Lies Arthur
Author: Philip Reeve
Published: 2008

The first time Gwyna sees Arthur, King of the Britons, Dux Bellorum, he's just ravaged her home and burnt it to the ground. She escapes by diving into a frozen stream, but it's just her luck that the person who fishes her out is none other than Myrddin, Arthur's bard, teller of stories and worker of magics. He recruits Gwyna to play lady of the lake for him, and so another legend is born.

When this role is done, Myrddin transforms Gwyna into Gwyn, his servant, and together they follow Arthur around Britain. In the process, Gwyna sees both the man Arthur, a mere dime-a-dozen warlord, and the legend Myrddin is spinning in order to turn him into King of the Britons, and how far apart they lie.

Every so often, an author's preoccupations are laid right out there on the page, and that's the case with Here Lies Arthur. If we're lucky, they've got the chops to make an absorbing story out of it. In this novel, Reeve thoroughly explores the power of storytelling to seduce and create. He makes it clear that Arthur is hardly the stuff of legend as he is, and that it's largely Myrrdin's stories that made him into the mighty, benevolent king. Yet this is no cynical political wheeling-dealing, or at least not totally. Myrddin truly believes that Arthur has the power to unite the mess of scrabbling fiefdoms against the Saxons, and he uses his stories as a tool. The stories themselves become succor for the Britons, for Arthur's men, even for Arthur himself. In spite of her cynicism, Gwyna herself begins spinning tales for herself and others by the end.

One of the more subtle but no less interesting themes is the way that Gwyna and another character, Peredur, slide in between gender roles. In a way, it's just another story--they encounter times and places when being male is too dangerous or simply doesn't fit, and so they become female, or vice versa. Just as Gwyna is ever aware of the human man at the center of the legend, she retains her identity no matter what clothes she wears.

If you enjoy Arthurian tales already, it's fun to play spot-the-roots. Reeve includes a note at the end that mentions a few of the harder connections, but sharp-eyed readers will see the seeds that become the Round Table and other enduring tales.

No comments: