Title: The Guinevere Deception
Author: Kiersten White
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Notable Notables: LGBTQA+ characters
Recommended Readers: Yo, anyone want a feminist reimagining of Arthurian legends?
Thank you, Net Galley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Kiersten White’s latest trilogy is a feminist study into the character Guinevere, a figure in Arthurian legends who is often regulated to the sidelines as a prize, an adulterer, a villain, and an opportunistic traitor—but never the architect of her own story. With The Guinevere Deception, Guinevere has found her voice at last, but in true White fashion, her story is full of interesting twists and unexpected choices.
For instance, when we meet Guinevere, she is journeying from a convent to Camelot in order to wed her future husband, King Arthur—and she isn’t truly Guinevere. The real Guinevere died tragically, and unbeknownst to everyone, a changeling raised by Merlin has taken her place. Casting all knowledge of her past aside, including her true name, “Guinevere” intends to be a source of magical protection for Arthur against his enemies, even though Camelot has exiled all magic and ousted Merlin. But exiling magic doesn’t stop the forests and lakes from wanting to reclaim the land, and the ideal of Camelot has as many enemies in man and beast as Arthur does. Perhaps the greatest threat might be Guinevere herself.
I had a great time with The Guinevere Deception. White has pulled back a bit from the darkness of The Conqueror’s Saga to suffuse this story with a dreamy and idyllic mood you expect to encounter when you enter Camelot. The prose is romantic, colorful, and wistful, yet a creeping, sinister feeling also lurks underneath as Guinevere attempts to unveil the magical threats against Arthur. There are chivalrous knights and courtly manners as much as there are brutal clashes and cunning politics, all of which Guinevere must acclimate to and navigate with little guidance.
That isn’t to say this novel is action-packed. It’s character-focused over plot-focused, and events unfold gradually as Guinevere figures them out. The biggest mystery, however, is centered around Guinevere herself, why she was raised by Merlin, who she is—and why she can’t remember the crucial details about herself that she should.
Characters surround her, of course, but only certain ones truly matter. Idealistic Arthur, her king and husband. Dutiful Brangien, her handmaiden. Fickle Merlin, a wizard as wise as he is unknowable. Cunning Mordred, a knight, the king’s nephew, and grandson of the Dark Queen. The mysterious patchwork knight, an undefeated combatant. Each of them form intriguing relationships with the new queen of Camelot, and I was enthralled with exploring each one.
But of course, if I had to choose a favorite, c’mon, it’s Mordred. Obviously.
Part of enjoying this book comes with enjoying the characters. The other part is the magic system. I was fascinated by the way Guinevere conducts magic, more ritualistic than free-forming, a system of give and take and anchoring. It’s unlike any magic I’ve ever read about before. There’s no garbled Latin or rhyming chants. It’s the forming of knots, of scrying, of trading parts of yourself to make the magic stronger. It’s more raw and elemental. Magic itself seemed to be its own character, an oppressive force over everything, and it was one of my most favorite parts of the book.
Ultimately, I loved this book because I loved Guinevere. Her struggles, her insights, her uncertainties. She was starkly real, capable of both cunning and resourcefulness as well as romantic yearnings and deepest sympathy. Her scene with the dragon, for instance, made me tear up, which is a rare event. White wrote that scene so well, making it both sorrowful and powerful, and moments like that are what cemented this story as one of my favorites this year.
That being said, there’s a reason I didn’t give it full marks. It got to the point where I began to seriously wonder if a climax was ever going to happen. Guinevere was doing things, certainly. She was feeling all types of ways. Events were happening in the background that seemed important and was building toward something, but the book just didn’t want to get to it. It wasn’t until my last 30 minutes of reading that the climax and denouement were both squeezed into the last few chapters, and once that happened, it was lightning-fast and not entirely satisfying. Even if I did ultimately like what happened, I expected a bit more.
Then, of course, there’s Guinevere’s choice. From a feminist standpoint, I was disappointed in her.
You see, I can understand why Guinevere believes in the romanticism of Camelot and what King Arthur means for it. What I cannot yet understand is why she settles for it for her. The narrative reaffirms over and over again that Guinevere has no true place in Camelot, that she will never have Arthur’s love the way she wants, that she will not be able to practice magic or be a queen the way she wants. Camelot is good for everyone else, except her, yet she is the one who is sacrificing everything so they can have their happy ever after.
I sincerely hope the next books shake Guinevere out of this mindset (and they probably will) because she’s too interesting to just be the Girl Who Settles. And Mordred and [redacted] are both right there.
Fortunately, there’s still so many unanswered questions and mystery unfolding, so many things teased in this first book that will be fleshed out and resolved in others. All of the relationships are tangled and interesting, and I can’t wait to see how they develop and what becomes of our changeling queen. (Our queen who strongly veers towards being bisexual, may my hopes soon be proven and rewarded.) Oh, dark Google, how long must I pine, awaiting for my fair sequel?