Thursday, March 7, 2024

Review: Spear, by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear, by Nicola Griffith

by Rich Horton

Nicola Griffith is the author of a great many excellent novels -- SF, crime, contempoary -- but she has made her biggest mark with two remarkable historical novels, Hild (2013) and Menewood (2023). These concern the life of the 7th Century Saint Hilda of Whitby. (More books about Hild are planned.) While working on Menewood she took a break to write Spear, which appeared in 2022. It is set in Wales and England in the 6th Century -- thus not dissimilar in time frame to the Hild books. But it is different in another way -- it is an Arthurian story, and truly a fantasy, leaning entirely into the Arthurian mythos complete with magic. Yet it is her own take on Arthur -- Welsh-centered, reimagining the characters as diverse, differently abled, queer, polyamorous, but still entirely true to the (already wildly diverse) legendarium.

The viewpoint character is Peretur, a version of Percival. But this Percival is a woman, and queer. We meet her growing up with only her mother Elen, in a secluded valley in Wales. But she feels always that her fate is different -- she is drawn to an image of a lake. And as she grows close to adulthood, she feels a need to leave, and to head to Caer Leon, and the King, Artos, and his Companions.

She has acquired spears, and a sword, and has developed remarkable skill. She encounters some of the Companions, and establishes a reputation, but when she comes to Caer Leon, she encounters some resistance. But after further feats -- defeating some bandits, rehabilitating some and killing the worst, she returns, and begins to develop relationships -- with Cai, at first skeptical; with Llanza (Lancelot), a great warrior though lame in one leg; and especially with Nimuë, the sorceress. But Artos is still wary -- and the secrets of Peretur's birth begin to come clearer (even to her.)

The novel then rushes to its conclusion -- the quest for the Grail (which here is, quite beautifully, not the Grail but one of the treasures of the Tuath Dé.) This too involves a confrontation with her father, and a resolution of her relationship with her mother, and with Artos; and of Artos' relationship with Gwenhyfar and Llanza. 

This is a lovely book, and the reframing of the story of Arthur is throughout sensible and intriguing. Peretur herself is wonderfully portrayed, and her sexuality is frankly and honestly depicted, and seems natural in its context. (And honestly Griffith does great sex scenes.) As with Hild, the depiction of everyday life in historical Britain is remarkable. The prose is graceful and lyrical. The fight scenes are outstanding. The characters all come to life. If I had a complaint, it would be that the ending is a bit rushed, and at times comes off a bit convenient. But Spear remains a glorious contribution to the (huge!) array of Arthurian retellings -- and it makes us see Arthur and his fellows in a way both familiar and refrshingly new.

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