by Gwen Rowley, historical/fantasy (2007)
Jove, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-515-14349-2
Gawain is, chronologically, a mess. I am not sure whether this story takes place before or after Lancelot, but I suspect that this story takes place at more or less the same time as Lancelot, given that Sir Lancelot du Lac behaves in this story just like he did in his own story, right before he was possessed by the ghost of Laura Kinsale's muse. Still, there are some attempts to tie this book to the previous books in the Knights Of The Round Table series, which is far more than I can say about the second book, Geraint. All three books feel as if they are written by three different people, with Gwen Rowley 3.0 at least working in some degree of tandem with Gwen Rowley 1.0 while Gwen Rowley 2.0 was last seen marching happily into the great unknown to the beat that only she could hear in her head.
Sir Gawain, our hero, is the central figure in the messy soap opera taking place in Camelot. He is King Arthur's designated heir and yet he is also the son of Queen Morgause, Arthur's archenemy as well as half-sister. Not that Gawain has any conflicted loyalty though - his head is staunchly up the rear end of Arthur, although the author would want us all to believe that this is because of shared ideals and not because of Gawain being named as Arthur's heir. Our heroine, Aislyn, is Morgause's former apprentice currently in hiding from the Queen after fleeing the Queen's abode and having accidentally taken the Queen's grimoire in the process. It's a long story, why she left the Queen, so I'll just let future readers of this book discover the story for themselves.
Aislyn's other story is that she and Gawain used to have a thing going on until some standard evil mommy drama tears them apart. Aislyn believes that Gawain left her behind to die at Morgause's hands. Gawain believed Morgause when she told him that Aislyn was ordered by the Queen to seduce him and the false harlot is now dead. Since then, Gawain lives a monk-like existence, viewing women as scheming liars and what not. I don't remember Gawain being like this in Lancelot, which further confuses me about the chronology of the stories in the series. At any rate, for the sake of this review, I'll just assume that this is a standalone story or you will get even more confused by my rambling than you already are.
Our story begins when Morgause's latest scheme has Aislyn's brother Launfal, under the guise of the Somer Gromer Jour (a fancy term that means "Lord of the Summer's Day"), has Arthur scrambling to find the answer to the knight's riddle or face certain death. Aislyn knows the answer to the riddle because she has Morgause's grimoire (in which I presume contains a chapter called "The answers to my tricks") and thus, in the magical disguise of a hideous old crone, provides Arthur the answer in exchange for a boon. Because she wants to punish Gawain by lashing out at the man's ego, she wants to marry Gawain. Remember, she's supposed to be a hideous old crone to Arthur and Gawain. Gawain decides that it is only right that he agrees to do so. And so the story goes.
Gawain is a frustrating exercise in contradictions, I find. Most perplexing to me is the way both Gawain and Aislyn can sometimes be so wonderfully wise and insightful in one beautiful shining moment before sliding back to becoming childish or naïve (in the case of Aislyn) or silly or misogynistic (in the case of Gawain). The characters can be inconsistent and hence frustrating. Aislyn starts out behaving like this girl-child type who is forced to become bitter, but unfortunately the author proceeds to set out to punish "bad" Aislyn for the rest of the story. You'd think there should be more sympathy accorded to Aislyn since she was the one that was left behind to face all kinds of torture at her former mentor's hand. I don't think we can easily pigeon-hole her as an "unlikable spoiled brat" and cheer for her reformation but I suspect that this is indeed the case with this story, sigh. We romance readers are always so hard on heroines who deviate from the template of the submissive and humble martyr who loves to suffer for daring to be physically perfect.
Gawain, his frequent backslides to his old self now and then notwithstanding, has some very gallant moments here that make me smile, especially when he finally realizes that he likes his wife even if she's an old crone. Of course, the author then has to ruin the magic by having Gawain discovering Aislyn's deception and behaving in a most stereotypical manner. But the author then redeems herself by having Gawain come to a most romantic epiphany.
I also enjoy the author's attempts to have Gawain realize that Camelot is sometimes a romantic ideal - the reality of Camelot may be something else altogether, something that Gawain may not appreciate without becoming even more disillusioned. I am initially annoyed that we have King Arthur and his lot - supposedly the most noble people in the world or something - behaving like dishonorable goons, trying to get Gawain out of the bargain after that old crone has saved Arthur's life. How about some show of gratitude instead of constant mockery towards the old crone? I know she's old and no doubt everyone in Camelot looks like he or she has walked out of the pages of Medieval Teen Beat, but seriously now. But when I realize that the author has set up a theme for Gawain to mature and mellow through disillusionment - how is that for romantic poetry, eh? - I am not so annoyed any more because everything makes sense.
Like Gawain's see-saw moods, this book see-saws between a more magical kind of romantic fantasy and a frustratingly clichéd melodramatic tale of kiddies trying to sort out their feelings. Still, the good moments are really good, which unfortunately leads to a double-edged sword of making the more average moments really disheartening to read. Still, all things considered, the Gwen Rowley that wrote this book can shake hands with the Gwen Rowley that wrote Lancelot because the two of them have written very interesting if somewhat flawed romantic fantasy adaptations of the Camelot mythos. If they plan to collaborate again, I'd suggest they ditch the second Gwen Rowley and ask someone more worthy to complete their pseudonymous triumvirate.
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