I have always, always, always been obsessed with the legend of King Arthur. I have read so many retellings of the story. (Mostly fictional – I love it, but I’m not a scholar. Haha.) But seriously, I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King so many times growing up that the spine broke and it lost pages and I had to buy a new copy. And Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a favorite that is definitely due for a reread soon. So really, I was sold on this novel, the first in a trilogy of the “untold story of Languoreth—a forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland—twin sister of the man who inspired the legend of Merlin” from the first moment I set eyes on the cover and read that blurb. I bought it immediately. And then, as it goes, it sat on my shelf for at least a year. Until now. I picked it up as my choice for The Reading Women’s 2020 Challenge, prompt #17, a book over 500 pages.
Sort of already gave you a recap of the plot in my intro, but this novel tells the story of Langoureth, a sixth-century queen of Scotland, who is the twin sister of the man who supposedly inspired the legend of Merlin. Langoureth and her twin, Lailoken, are born in and practice the Old Ways. But as they grow, the influx of a new religion, Christianity, is tearing their country in half. And they simultaneously face a colonizing Anglo-Saxon force from the east. The twins grow up under this tension, each following their own destinies to protect the Old Ways and their lands and peoples, a cause outwardly championed by the famous Pendragon and his Dragon Warriors. Their bond remains strong and close, as they fight for the faith and tradition they both believe in, despite the fact that their paths put them on opposite sides of the religious/political power struggle within the country. Langoureth’s romances, sacrifices, memory and strength are the focus of the new perspective on a well-known and famous legend.
First – wow, just wow. This was spectacular. These 500 pages just flew by and I am over here like, I need the next book now. From the very beginning, the writing was fantastically atmospheric and I felt completely transported in time and place. Pike’s reverence for the setting and subject and characters was so clear in every moment. Each was handled with care and precision and clarity and as much authenticity and vibrant life as possible. (And after reading her “Note from the Author” at the end, it’s clear why – her lifelong love of this legend shines so strongly. Also, due to this section, I’ve added yet another reason why Scotland is one of my favorite places ever – because it was likely the true birthplace of this legend! I really figured there was no way for me to be more into that country…I was wrong.) To sum up what could turn into entirely too much gushing, it all felt smooth and venerated, from the nature to the history to the traditions to the clearly “fictional” parts, like the dialogue and the relationship-building. Also, the pacing was on point. Characterization and exposition and relationships were given the time they deserved to be full and realistic, yet the foreshadowing, and then actuality, of the more dramatic events cropped up often enough to keep the spirit of intrigue and tension and adventure at the forefront. As I said, for a book this long, the pages and time went by quickly. This is especially impressive for an opening novel, in which all background and characters must be introduced, the conflicts must all be developed, and the reader needs to not be bored or lost during it. The fact that this book starts with the twins as young children of ten years and follows them through the years until they are mid-thirties (and the real “meat” of the famous Arthurian legend begins to unfold), just adds to how amazing that is.
A few other things I loved, because I want to mention them all. First, I love how a previously “forgotten” female leader is getting her story “re”-told. There are so many versions of this historical myth, and while some of them do take a feminist perspective, this is the first I’ve read based on this potential newcomer to the story. And if Langoureth was truly a queen, and twin to such a powerful, mystical man as “Merlin,” whose story, such as it is, has survived against many odds, hers deserves to as well. This is especially true if even part of the sacrifices she made in this account are true…from her own freedom/choice to the many wrongs she had to overlook until she gained more power to the pitting of her own family against itself in a war that was completely out of her control. And I loved that that aspect is told with all Langoureth’s own related helplessness. She is a strong and smart and generally well-respected and powerful-ish woman…and yet within the times she lived, her choices were difficult ones (sometimes none with a good outcome) and her ability to act on her own feelings was minimal. She was restricted by the role women had in the society in which she lived. And yet, she is still such a strong and courageous leader (or sorts). I know that this is a fictional account, but I really enjoyed the way her situation was dictated by the rules of her time, and that was not sugar-coated, and yet she took what she could, when she could. (And I definitely was into that part of it – among other things, I’ll never say no to a good secret romance.)
When I read the last page and closed this book, I literally said “That was AMAZING” out loud. No one heard me, because I was home alone (well, with the dog, but she’s deaf), but that’s not the point. This was so good. If you are into King Arthur’s legend, druidism/the Old Ways, the history of the British Isles (obviously a bit fictionalized), historical fiction, epic stories/novels, political and religious and interpersonal intrigue, battles and fighting, (a not-overwhelming-amount of) romance, family sagas, fantasy (this is solidly historical fiction, but I read a ton of fantasy and it had that feel to it, in the writing and plot unfolding) OR if you just love being swept away on the tides of phenomenal story-telling, then you need to read this! I cannot wait for the next installment to be published!