I just finished my Advanced Reading copy (yes, it does make me feel delightfully important to be the recipient of an Advanced Reading copy) of Suzannah Rowntree’s novel, Pendragon’s Heir. The book is essentially a retelling of the story of Camelot, and therefore an exploration of the elusive, tragically costly, yet beautiful vision of building a city of light upon earth. Our young protagonist, Blanche, has been raised in Edwardian England. However, she discovers very early in the story that she is both the subject of prophecy and the daughter and heir of King Arthur. Or at least, she probably is--gossip about her mother’s chastity has sown doubt in some minds. Initially resistant to the idea of giving up her pleasant life in order to re-enter the medieval world of errant knights and rampaging villains, Blanche gradually matures into her role of heiress to a struggling kingdom. Meanwhile, her relationship with the impetuous, gallant (and admiring) Sir Percival also grows.
I soon found myself caring about the protagonists and enjoying all of the characters. Did I mention that there are several of the fey folk in this story? They are delightfully handled, and I am a sucker for well-portrayed fey folk. The relationships between characters are nuanced and often unexpected, and I was impressed by the action sequences and the author’s ability to write so many tense, believable, non-repetitive scenes of combat (although I admit that I know absolutely nothing about how to fight, and might not notice if the blows and techniques were unrealistic). In addition, the story explores significant themes. It is satisfying overall and demonstrates the degree to which the author has immersed herself in medieval and Arthurian imagery. I recommend that you read it.
In fact, the book is so good that I feel free to critique and analyze it as freely as if it came from the presses of a major publishing company. There is no need for me to be “kind” to the author by keeping any complaints, quibbles, or questions to myself. The pacing of the book is not perfect. Although both the beginning and end are taut and fast-paced, there was a section in the middle that felt a little too slow and episodic. I think this is because the main threads of the overall plot (and the relationships between the main characters) were allowed to sink out of sight while the characters gathered information and experienced minor adventures. The information and the adventures were needed for the overall story, but did not convey as much of a feeling of forward momentum. Some readers may disagree with this, and argue that I merely have a short attention span for knightly adventures.
I also find myself deeply struck by the problem of Simon Corbin, an articulate character who attempts to prevent Blanche from taking up her role as heir. In the language of a free-thinking Edwardian skeptic, he rejects belief in God as well as the idea that anyone owes a duty to a kingdom, a higher power, or a moral code. He argues for modern progress instead of feudal virtue. In a later scene, he challenges an idealistic knight with the argument that, just as even the “best” leaders sin, and just as good men use ignoble methods in war and conflict, it is delusional to believe that right can be defended without doing wrong. Ultimately, the conflict of the book could be said to be between these two positions: between those who wish to use only ethical means to create a kingdom patterned on visions of heaven (even though they know this struggle appears doomed), and those who wish to use any means necessary to create a kingdom according to their own ideas of what would be best.
On the one hand, I commend the author for creating Simon Corbin, because he is no straw man. It adds realism that our hero and heroine cannot best him in debate. However, I rather wonder if some readers (especially those who do not share the author’s beliefs) will not find Mr. Corbin’s arguments the more compelling (I once ran into this problem in a short story of my own: I tried to let both sides speak for themselves, and my liberal teacher thought that my story had made a much stronger case for liberal relativism than for conservative beliefs, because those were the arguments that resonated with her). Will such readers wonder if someone like Corbin might not have made a better ruler than a king who allows random knights to run around, walloping each other into an early grave, while the peasants do all the actual work? After all, Mr. Corbin is the only one who addresses “realistic” issues such as sanitation and the suffering of the poor.
The motivations of the good characters are harder to put forth in tidy, convincing arguments, and they rest more heavily on what might uncharitably be called mystical naivete. Here of course we see, in a nutshell, the challenge of a Christian author who speaks from her own perspective while trying to avoid heavy-handedly “proving” her own point, or pausing the narrative for a discussion of theology. If one speaks too often or too directly about God, one risks alienating non-Christian readers or of failing to remain in the role of novelist. If one approaches philosophical and religious themes more obliquely, one can have trouble providing a full, compelling picture of one’s beliefs.
I have been asking myself if Miss Rowtree should have handled her story any differently. It might have strengthened her tale if the good characters had defined Arthur’s kingdom more concretely, and, in particular, truly acknowledged the humanity and needs of the peasantry. I realize that this story is intended to fit into the tradition of the knightly tale, not that of a realistic novel, of course, but I wonder if Mr. Corbin should have been allowed to introduce the sufferings of the poor without having the protagonists also truly acknowledge this issue.
Such questions aside, I enjoyed reading this novel, and I enjoyed thinking about the questions it raised in my mind. Many thanks to Suzannah for the opportunity to do so! I loved (and still love) her characters, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next.