by Gwen Rowley, historical/fantasy (2006)
Jove, $6.99, ISBN 0-515-14199-2
If you need one reason to read Gwen Rowley's debut, how about a Lancelot that is so beautifully damaged that he is all but unrecognizable?
Ms Rowley literally breaks apart Lancelot du Lac in this story that he is a beautiful kind of Kafka-esque torment in action. Lancelot here is a sham. His valor and prowess in battle are due to the magics weaved by his guardian, the Lady of the Lake, so that no mortal knight can best him in combat. Lancelot knows this and feels the shame and guilt of keeping away knights that are most likely better in combat than he is - like Sir Gawain the Bloody Perfect - from their rightful place by King Arthur as First Knight. However, the Lady, who adopted him pretty much after the death of his parents, has drilled into him that his destiny is to serve King Arthur, so Lancelot clings on to this belief like a lifeline. He knows that his time spent in the Lady's otherworldly realm, Avalon, has diluted his humanity until he no longer feels human. This "ambition", to be King Arthur's greatest knight, is the only thing that keeps him going. Also, he is starting to forget chunks of his past. Oh dear, am I reading a medieval-era Memento?
Our heroine Elaine of Corbenic is the only person trying to keep her family together, it seems. Her father is absent-minded and dotty enough to believe that digging trenches and/or locating the Holy Grail will magically solve this "curse" that plagues their family. Her brother Torre spends his time drinking and sleeping with any woman he can get his hands on after he's been injured by Lancelot in a past duel to the point that he cannot ride a horse again. Or so it seems at that point, hmmph. She meets Lancelot when he decides to enter this year's Pentecoastal tournament incognito (don't ask, let's just say that Guinevere, his Queen, is a thoughtless attention-starved nitwit who often gets him into embarrassing situations because that stupid woman just cannot think) so of course they fall in love without she realizing that he's actually Lancelot. However, when she realizes who he really is, she doesn't hold his deception against him too much, which is good because the deconstruction of Sir Lancelot du Lac into a quivering, blabbering emotional mess has only just begun.
Lancelot is this book's strongest and weakest point. Ms Rowley has created a very psychologically fascinating hero in him - he's so damaged to the point that even he has no idea how damaged he is. I love that. Lancelot is very sympathetic especially because he doesn't want to be a jerk and he never wants to be a jerk, hence his descent into madness just because he's one nice fellow is even more heartbreaking and tragic to follow. However, Lancelot may just be too damaged for the happy ending in this story in my opinion. The closure is too neat when Lancelot's damage is anything but neat and tidy. He is a very passive fellow - understandably so, in this story - and his initial reaction to every conflict in his relationship with Elaine is to walk away without letting her know that he's not coming back. That just has to happen after he's sweet-talked her, lain with her, and filled her with hope, of course, hmmph. Anyway, it's hard to blame Lancelot too much for being a jerk because we have a hero who may be actually slowly going mad as the story progresses. Lancelot is oh-so-much a Laura Kinsale kind of hero in that aspect. He's too fascinating for words and I can sympathize with and understand his feelings of despair and helplessness.
The thing is, though, I'm just not sure about the happily ever after because Elaine in this book seems to have substituted one child for another when she moves on from babysitting her father and Torre to babysitting Lancelot. What am I saying? She is a mother to Lancelot. She makes his decisions for him, she guides him back when he's gone too far into the fogs of his mind, and she nurses him when he's down, broken and blue and bruised all over. A very telling scene is when Arthur tells him to leave Camelot while the idiot Guinevere begs him to stay, which causes Lancelot to be utterly confused as to what he should do because that man really cannot make a decision to save his own hide. I don't find the relationship between Elaine and Lancelot romantic. Sure, I find it interesting and even demanding and wearying to follow at times because Lancelot is channeling Laura Kinsale's greatest hits too well for his own good, but I am hard-pressed to say that in the future Lancelot won't walk away from her again and that their love is enough to keep them together. I get this feeling that Lancelot will always put his dreams of honor and glory over his love for Elaine.
And since Elaine doesn't even get a thank-you for her patient mothering of all the men in her life - after she's cleaned up their messes, her father and her brother miraculously turn into responsible adults and tell Elaine to run along now and play with Lancelot because the big brave men will now take care of everything - I hope she gets something nice out of this relationship, however long it will last. There is too much giving on her part and too much taking on the parts of Lancelot, her father, and her brother, for me to wish that she's fallen for the more functional Gawain or something. She can always play Florence Nightingale with Lancelot, she doesn't have to marry him, if you know what I mean?
Lancelot is an interesting story and I certainly will remember Lancelot long after I'm done with this book. However, I feel that Ms Rowley has spent more time breaking down Lancelot than actually building him back - often the same issue I have with Laura Kinsale's books - so it is hard for me to buy the happily ever after, especially when the relationship sees Elaine doing all the work to sustain it. And when the story ends with Lancelot about to leave Elaine for a war, what am I supposed to feel on top of my feelings about the compatibility of those two? Ms Rowley, like Ms Kinsale, can sometimes be too enamored of her heroes' baggages that they spend too much time delving into their tormented psyche to the point that the story feels more like a psychological tale of crazy people with a tacked-on "See? A pretty woman loves our crazy hero, so you must believe that it's love!" angle rather than a romance story. I like this story, I find it interesting and intriguing, and I think the last few chapters are written in a manner that is indelibly poetic. This book also leaves me cold.
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