Some books are more complicated to review than others. Regular readers will be well aware that The Cleaving is written by a very dear friend of mine, Juliet McKenna, many of whose books I publish. I am absolutely biased on the subject of her writing. Also I was born not far from Glastonbury, have read a lot of Arthuriana, and run a Pendragon campaign. The only reason that I haven’t written an Arthur book myself is that I’m not a good enough writer.
I’m going to start by saying that The Cleaving is not the sort of Arthur book that I would have written. That does not mean that it is a bad book. Indeed, I think it is a fresh and necessary approach to the legend. There are many different reasons why one might want to dip one’s toes into Arthuriana. What I want to do here is discuss some of the choices that McKenna has made. After all, my job as a reviewer is to help you make a decision as to whether to buy the book, and that will depend to a large extent on whether you like those choices.
I should start by saying that this is a very English version of Arthur. It is rooted firmly in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory, and while some of it also derives from Chrétien de Troyes, his patroness, Marie de France, Countess of Champagne, was the daughter is Eleanor of Aquitaine and therefore half-sister to Richard the Lionheart and King John. The book presents a view of Arthurian times that would be familiar to and approved by the likes of Edward III and Henry VIII, though neither of them would like McKenna’s portrayal of Arthur himself.
In particular the setting is one of mediaeval England. There are stone castles, and tournaments. There are places called Logres (England), Wales and Scotland. They are divided up into petty kingdoms, but they are presented as culturally distinct in a way that they would be in Malory’s time, but not in the aftermath of the Roman departure. Arthur is first and foremost an English king, though he aspires to be High King of the entire island. As far as any attempt at crafting an historical Arthur goes, this is all nonsense, but it is very true to the setting of the legends written by and for the English. It is also, of course, familiar territory to a writer of epic fantasy, which has been McKenna’s forte through most of her career.
One of the choices you have to make when writing Arthuriana is whether to use the setting, or to engage with the legend. McKenna has mainly done the latter, though there is no mention of the Grail Quest in her version. If you make use of the setting then all sorts of fantastic tales can be told in which bold knights and beautiful maidens take on supernatural foes. If you adhere more to the plot of the legend then you are inevitably drawn into a tale in which flawed people make bad decisions leading to disastrous consequences. In that case, which is what McKenna has done, the interesting questions revolve around how the main characters are flawed, and why they make those bad decisions.
There is magic in the book. Mostly it is wielded by the Fae, in particular by Merlin and Nimue as they are the ones who mostly involve themselves in human affairs. The politics of such meddling is key to much of the plot.
The main thrust of the story, however, centres on the women. Traditionally, Arthurian fiction either largely ignores female characters, or paints them as scheming villains, or puts them in a romance plot. McKenna does none of these things. Instead she focuses on what it means to be a high status woman in a mediaeval society when you are seen as property by the men in your life. And when those men are mostly arrogant thugs who spend much of their time bashing each other senseless over imagined slights to their honour.
The Cleaving doesn’t gender-swap Arthuriana, but it does gender-swap the importance of the characters. The men are mostly ciphers, distinguishable only by some of them having slightly more brains and sense of morals than others. Gawain is the most sympathetic of them, desperately wanting to do the right thing, but not having the wit to see what that is. Lancelot, having succeeded easily at everything in his life to date, has no idea what to do when he becomes embroiled in an affair with Guinevere. Arthur, having been made King thanks to Merlin’s magic, is horribly out of his depth when things get difficult. The women, in particular Morgana, have much more nuanced motivations, and think with their heads rather than with their dicks or their sword arms.
I can imagine a number of male readers being deeply upset by this. Those who are not may be mollified by some of the excellent fight scenes, because McKenna does know what she’s talking about when it comes to combat.
Other readers will find much more to enjoy and admire in this book. It does take much of the shine off the Round Table, but it does so in a very believable way. It also points a much-deserved spotlight on Ygraine, Morgana, Guinevere and Nimue.
Title: The Cleaving
By: Juliet E McKenna
Publisher: Angry Robot
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