I forced myself to finish this. I honestly don’t know why.
**This review contains spoilers**
God. God I hated this so much.
Okay, so here’s the setup: Elaine is an oracle (cool). Elaine is being emotionally abused by her evil depressed mother, who is the only mentally ill character in this book (somewhat less cool). Elaine then goes to Avalon, where everyone is liberated and wears skimpy clothing and is neo-pagan in sixth century fantasy Britain for some reason! (GO BACK GO BACK I WANT TO GO BACK) Yeah, suffice to say that this book impressed me with an interesting first scene and then took a swan dive off a cliff. At least my expectations weren’t that high? …Still though, I was foolish enough to at least have some expectations!
Clearly, I need to stop doing that with modern Arthuriana.
I’ll get into all the ugly stuff later, but let me start off by saying that I was super confused about the plot for most of the book? Elaine’s visions led me to believe that this was going to cover all of Arthur’s reign from his rise to his fall, because she kept having visions about the arthurpocalypse and How It All Fell Apart (ooh). And then I was at the middle of the book and Arthur hadn’t even married Guinevere yet? I honestly had to rack my brains to remember if this was really a standalone. Anyway, yeah, I could have done with a few less visions! Or at least put something in the blurb to make it clear that this is about Arthur’s rise to power? Maybe?
So yeah, the plot was really boring and I honestly don’t know why I was supposed to care. Oh no, Merlin is supporting Mordred, who is now Arthur’s half-brother for some reason and also in love with Morgause because this book decided to devote its existence to making me want to throw up! Why is Merlin doing this (especially when supporting Mordred goes against everything he stood for in the legends)? I don’t know! Elaine wants to stop this, because Mordred will run the kingdom into the ground! At least in an unspecified vision Elaine had, anyway. Why couldn’t we have seen that vision? It would have given such a better sense of the stakes if we could have seen what would have happened to Albion. Elaine is all-in for Arthur for…reasons I guess! I don’t know why! Why can’t she grab power for herself and be queen if she can literally see the future? She’d do a better job of it than either of those two schmucks.
I couldn’t help but compare this to Nirvana in Fire as I read this, not because it was anywhere NEAR as good as Nirvana in Fire, but because both stories had a protagonist who puts their life on hold to get some other guy on the throne. But Mei Changsu had a clear reason for wanting the current emperor off the throne, because the emperor was responsible for the death of his family. I get why that would drive you to do really extreme things! And I also understand why he would think Prince Jing was the best guy to be on the throne. Prince Jing is a guy who REALLY cares about justice, and the corrupt royal court doesn’t have a lot of guys like that. I just…wasn’t convinced about Arthur? It’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that I don’t understand why he’s good, let alone the best guy to be on the throne. I don’t know why Elaine cares so much about this guy, other than that Nimue told her he would bring some vague ‘golden age’ or whatever. Sure, I…guess he’s better than Mordred? Were there no other options? Why are my only two options ‘evil weasel’ and ‘stale chunk of white bread?’
Also, like…Nihuang was more of a girl power icon than any of the women in these books will ever be.
Speaking of girl power! The way feminism was handled in this book was so simplistic, heavy-handed, and sometimes…just plain dumb? Probably the most egregious scene was with Morgana and the tapestry. Okay, okay, get this. Morgana walks into the room, points to the unicorn on the tapestry and asks Elaine if she knows what the unicorn represents. Elaine answers that it represents virtue, and Morgana responds that it represents virginity, and the men don’t want to tell her that because they don’t want to seem too interested in what goes on between a girl’s legs (her words, not mine). I…
POLICING WOMEN’S SEXUALITY IS THE WHOLE POINT FOR THESE PEOPLE AND THAT ABSOLUTELY EXTENDS TO HOW THEY TREAT TEENAGERS. Oh boy, I wish this were how the world worked! I sure WISH that men would pretend not to care too much about a teenage girl’s sexuality! Someone take me to this fantasy world, please! *bangs head against a wall* I have literally read an article in which a girl’s parents pulled her out of the swim team at age TEN because the swimsuit she had to wear was too tight (fitted swimsuits are required for competitive swimming)! I have heard of young teenage girls getting lectured for being a ‘stumbling block’ to the older men in their church because the young girl wore a shirt that was too tight or something. Please explain to me again how these types of men will act so bashfully around young women that they don’t even want to mention virginity in front of them.
Anyway, this was all a lead-in to Morgana’s sex joke, because of course it was. Arthur is RIDING the unicorn? Get it??? *waggles eyebrows* If your sex joke has to be explained that much in order for it to make sense, it isn’t a very good joke. Kill me now.
And then Morgana proceeds to burn the tapestry #ForTheLols, which makes me want to kill her. Embroidery is so hard and those girls worked on the tapestry so much. Just because Elaine hates the tapestry doesn’t mean all the girls who worked on it do. It must have been some of those girls’ pride and joy. That was the moment I decided I hated Morgana.
The feminism would swing between being about historical issues no modern woman would have to face and modern issues no historical woman would likely face. And sometimes issues NO woman would face, ever (see the tapestry). The corset represents female oppression!!! Get it, because the boning in a corset is like a cage?? Sort of like how real women are in a metaphorical cage?? DO YOU GET THE SYMBOLISM??? And the pooooooor women, not being able to practice archery and having to wear corsets and all that. Because medieval women absolutely wore corsets and didn’t practice archery.
…Okay, look here. Medieval noblewomen practiced archery because oh, look at that! They went hunting! They absolutely didn’t wear corsets. My God. The author just lifted a bunch of stereotypes about the 19th century in order to write her book. At one point the heroine wears a dress that has cap sleeves, which. I’m pretty sure would not have been done in the medieval period? All the women in paintings that I’ve seen have their arms covered up to their wrists, which would have been a pretty nice thing to mention if you want to talk about modesty! Oh, and at one point, Elaine literally says ‘not all men,’ to which Guinevere replies, ‘not all men, Elaine……but enough of them,’ and I’m sorry, did I stumble onto a twitter conversation somehow? Because I would like to get off. Like. Are you writing about 19th century–oh, I’m sorry, medieval oppression of women, or are you making commentary on how they’re oppressed in the present day? Or are you going to look at the ways in which the treatment of women stays the same throughout history, discussing how while times change, some of the ways in which people treat women remain the same, and–oh, you just steamrolled past that option. Didn’t even notice it. Never mind, I’m not sure what else I expected.
You know what, I give up. I’m going to have Mordred say “yes all men” and shove a guy out a window. If Laura Sebastian can do it, so can I.
(A quick note: I don’t think Arthuriana has to be historically accurate at all! It’s basically impossible to write historically accurate Arthuriana, if you want to get down to it. But my personal preference is for the world to feel more medieval than this? And I really just don’t understand why we’re segueing into 19th century women’s issues.)
I also think the feminism in this book doesn’t address a lot of women out there? The liberation in this book is found in wildness. Avalon, with its sexy sexy bonfires and women who wear skimpy clothing, is liberated. THEIR women do stuff. They can do magic and be fighters. Lyonesse is liberated. Their women are werewolves and they wear short skirts and kill people! They’re wild and they run and fight! Camelot’s women…
…Um, they’re just not mentioned? Elaine’s mom is mentioned. She’s evil and abusive. Morgause is mentioned. She’s evil because she wants power for herself, unlike good and sweet Elaine who wants power for a man. And worse, Morgause is too feminine, unlike the heroine, who is just the right amount of feminine! Morgause cares about her appearance and stuff, which makes her an evul harpy who is evul! Seriously, Morgause is such a negative female stereotype. I do not understand why you would pretend to write a feminist novel and then treat your female villains this way?
To be fair, Elaine is from Camelot, but she spends most of her teenage years on Avalon, and she has Avalon’s values. I’m not counting her. Even though she is more ‘normal’ than her friends, she still seems like an exceptional woman to me, with her powers as a seeress that allows her to influence the rise and fall of kings. What of the normal women? The women who aren’t werewolves, or sorceresses, or kingmakers?
Anyway, we never hear about the women who do fit in and what they go through. We also never hear about the women who don’t fit in in different ways from Elaine and co. The feminism is just not very intersectional. There are a few women of color, but they’re either relegated to relatively minor roles, or, uh…We’ll get to that later. The closest thing we get to queer rep is Guinevere and Elaine jokingly flirting, but don’t worry, folks! They’re very straight, they’re just flirting because they’re not homophobic and women flirting is funny or…something? I guess? Seriously, they had more chemistry in that one scene than either of them EVER do with their trash boyfriends. We never hear about any disabled or mentally ill women. Oh wait, I almost forgot! We do hear about one mentally ill woman, who is mentally ill and abusive. Can’t forget Elaine’s mom.
Look, I don’t mind mentally ill abusive characters. In fact, I think there’s absolutely a place for them. Not all mentally ill people are good, that’s stupid. We’re people, not just an identity, and sometimes people are very bad. And I do think that since mental illness affects all parts of your life (or it can, anyway), it makes sense that someone’s toxic or abusive behavior would be influenced by their mental illness. But does she have to be the only mentally ill character in the story? Does Morgana have to say “She’s touched in the head” and imply that that is the reason why Elaine should leave her? I know the author said she had depression, and I respect that she probably had a reason for portraying depression in that way, but I also have depression, and personally? It didn’t sit right with me, and I’m just a little bitter. Why can’t Elaine have depression and struggle to get out of bed and leave her tower sometimes? Why can’t Lancelot draw her out–not cure her, but make things a little better–and convince her to brave the dangers of the real world, a place that’s confusing and sometimes harsh and not at all as simple as her tapestries? Why is that not the heroine the 21st century needs or whatever?
(Like…giving her depression would have given her a connection to the Tennyson poem that she absolutely did not have lmao.)
There are a few women of color, but I don’t think they were handled well? Nimue is Black, and I don’t have too many problems with her–sure, she’s not that interesting, but it’s not like she stands out for that in that cast. Morgana and Morgause, though?? They’re both described as having ‘bronze skin,’ and the way it’s written, is, uh…
She was beautiful in a cruel way, with luminous bronze skin, long, wavy hair the color of jet, a hawklike nose, and a wide mouth painted red as blood.
I just! I don’t like how she’s described as ‘beautiful in a cruel way’ and then it goes on to describe her bronze skin and aquiline nose! This rubs me the wrong way! I hate this so much!
Oh, and Mordred has a ‘hooked nose?’ And, if I remember correctly, Morgause does, too? I…*slowly slides into the dirt* If you’re wondering why this upsets me, hooked noses are something Jewish people are often stereotyped as having. (TW for discussions of antisemitism in the link.) I’m not trying to cancel the author and I’m not trying to argue that she’s a bad person, but I wish she or her editor had googled ‘antisemitic coding’ before publishing this.
Random little things that annoyed me:
-There were places where the writing just…did not make sense? “Relief falls over Arthur’s expression like a velvet curtain.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN.
-Mordred has ‘sand-colored’ hair in one scene and black hair in another. I refuse to believe this book was edited.
-Everyone in this book swears using the words ‘Maiden, Mother, and Crone,’ which, while I’m pretty sure it comes from beliefs about Hecate, is still a very modern phrasing? Honestly, though, the fact that half the characters in this book practiced a modern religion is the least bad thing about this book. (Nothing against neo-pagans or anything like that! I just don’t understand why the characters happen to believe the exact same thing as neo-pagans in the 21st century when they supposedly aren’t time travelers lmao?)
-The magic in this book is SO hokey. At one point Morgana literally pulls down the moon from the sky and threatens to destroy it. Okay Admiral Zhao. Admiral Zhao did it better, tbh. What even was this book.
-Morgana has purple eyes?????
-The worst thing? LANCELOT KEPT CALLING ELAINE ‘SHALOTT.’ THAT IS LIKE IF SOMEONE KEPT CALLING ME BY THE NAME OF MY HOMETOWN. WHAT PARALLEL UNIVERSE HAVE I ENTERED INTO THAT THIS BOOK EXISTS. I WANT OUT.
The ONE thing about this book that I liked is that the heroine understands the need for propaganda, and in general, the political intrigue wasn’t awful. That was the one thing. Everything else? Throw it away. Preferably somewhere far away from me, please.
Anyway, this was an awful experience! I possibly enjoyed reading Yu Wu more, and I didn’t even finish that one because the hero was a burning dumpster fire full of toxic waste. A burning dumpster fire full of toxic waste is still better than watching paint dry, though, which was what reading this felt like.