**Mild spoilers throughout**
Before we begin, can we talk about how Mordred, the villain, is portrayed as ever-so-subtly more feminine than the other characters? Oh hey! It’s almost as if femininity is treated as a dangerous, villainous force that is only accepted when it is smothered and tamed! Which, of course, brings us to all our other issues with this book.
This review sums up my issues with this novel (and with literally every book in YA) much better than I probably could. It’s not that it’s a bad book. It felt a little uneven in parts and the setting could have been better developed, but the pacing is good and the writing is exquisite. It’s just…
…Perhaps it isn’t quite as empowering a book as it thinks it is?
Let me regale you with my extremely irrelevant personal experiences. I’ve always been a bit of an outcast, okay? Some of that came from other people, and some of it comes from myself. I naturally prefer being alone. I’m naturally hard to categorize, a thing society finds very dangerous. I don’t *rubs chin* fit in. I don’t want to fit in. Have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? That’s weird.
Okay, enough with the stupid Riverdale references. I haven’t even watched the show. Anyway, where am I going with this?
Simply that, when a character that society has rejected gets dragged back into society and placed into an acceptable mold, it drives. Me. Batty. It’s not that this is a bad story–it’s not, it could have used better development, but it’s perfectly fine. But I’ve seen a certain trope play out over and over and over, and I am sick of it. Allow me to explain. This story has several directions it could go in as far as the ships go. Guinevere could realize that no one in Camelot is actually really there for her except three people, embrace her inner villainess, get together with Mordred, and have her happy ending (I mean, she’d better get that happy ending. Even the legends had her usually survive till the end, and those were written by medieval writers not very concerned with the perceived feminism of their work). Alternatively, she has a cute, possibly sapphic romance with Lancelot, and I am happy, but maybe won’t read the next two books, because even though I like both characters a lot, I’m going to be quite upset if the pure, chaotic femininity of the Dark Queen* gets demonized without any reflection as to how this may contradict with the themes of this work. If Gwen gets with Mordred, she can become that pure, chaotic femininity herself. Someone like Queen Maeve, like Clytemnestra, like (heh) Morgan le Fey. That would be fun.
*Yes, the villainess really does refer to herself as the Dark Queen. To be perfectly fair, it’s nowhere near the most ridiculous thing an Arthurian character has done. Also, as you can probably tell, this story is a pretty loose retelling. The setting is also more fantasy than medieval in some ways. It threw me off at first, but I got used to it eventually.
But. Of course there’s a but. If it keeps going the same way the story left off, I am going to be very upset.
We’ve all seen the story play out in some book or another, haven’t we? A character is outcast from society in some way, sometimes even persecuted. In Guinevere’s case, she’s a witch in a society that banishes and executes them, and she’s a woman in a society that is very reluctant to give women power. Arthur is not doing much to change this. Arthur is responsible for some of this. And I am terrified that Guinevere is just going to keep trying and trying to prove herself to him. I’ve read so many stories where either the heroine conforms to society and hides part of herself to be accepted (happy endings, am I right!), or else society grudgingly accepts the nonconformist part of her—provided she doesn’t get TOO uppity, of course. Alternatively, the heroine will reject society the same way society has rejected her, embrace her inner powerful villainess, and then die. Can’t have women destroying that status quo, after all! That would be threatening. We might not even have a box to shove her in! Everyone knows only men are allowed to be trailblazers, villains, outcasts who stray from the beaten path. (And even then…a lot of male characters end up getting dragged back into a socially acceptable mold eventually. Can you tell this is my least favorite trope?)
Yeah. I’ve run into stories like that over and over and over, where a character is either forced into a socially acceptable role or killed off. Some of y’all out there are afraid of powerful women, and it shows.
I JUST WANT GUINEVERE TO GET TOGETHER WITH THE VILLAIN, OKAY. (I want her to become a villain, at least in the eyes of everyone else.) Mordred didn’t grab me at first–I thought he was pretty condescending toward her at the beginning of the book, excuse me that is your queen show some respect–but he shapes up shortly after, and I’d say he treats her…maybe a lot better than Arthur does. Let’s examine the many, many sins of Arthur Pendragon as a boyfriend, shall we?
Firstly, Arthur lies to her. Like, a lot. He lies to her about quite important things. Guinevere admits this at the end! But she goes back to him anyway.
Secondly! Arthur seems to consistently undercut Guinevere’s power while pretending to give her free rein. I don’t know if he’s doing this deliberately or accidentally, but it’s a pretty big problem either way. He takes her along to settle a treaty with the Picts, which is good! But she’s only there to look pretty and be a sign of Arthur’s trust for the other leader. She’s not informed of the politics in any way! Arthur doesn’t let her in on any of his decisions in this process and doesn’t allow for any of her input. Arthur doesn’t allow Guinevere any actual power. He only allows her to be busy with very safe things that she can’t mess up too badly, so she feels like she’s doing something while not actually doing anything important. It’s entirely possible that it’s an accident on Arthur’s part! But he’s still doing it, and it’s beyond frustrating that Guinevere never points it out and struggles against that. At one point, Arthur tells her he wants her to act as his queen, it’s a really big moment, and then cut to the next scene where he puts her in charge of seating arrangements at the tournament. (Give that job to Mordred. He’s obviously in need of something to keep him busy. For heaven’s sake.) She goes so far as to say that Arthur has given her a job not important enough for a king, but fitting for a queen. Good heavens. Have some self-respect, honey.
Thirdly, Arthur just doesn’t spend a lot of time with her. He consistently puts the kingdom’s needs ahead of hers–which, sure, he probably needs to do as king, and I can get frustrated with leaders who put either themselves or their one true luv ahead of their actual duties. But at the point where Guinevere!! gets kidnapped!! and Lancelot and Mordred take way, way more initiative to save her than Arthur ever did? Arthur, maybe it’s time to put your wife first every once in a while. Even if, in the end, you put your country first, your queen still matters, and I’ll thank you to act like it.
I’m fine with heroines who try to fit in with society’s expectations and who are more willing to try to work within the patriarchy rather than against it. But it’s just kind of frustrating to have a book all about celebrating women and fighting the patriarchy, and then the heroine goes along with the patriarchy hook, line, and sinker. She should have either gone with Mordred or made her own plans, and it’s the most frustrating thing in the world to me when she goes back to the man who consistently puts her last. I didn’t get why she would. It wasn’t as though she chose Arthur as the lesser of two evils (which would be a perfectly fair thing to do. Much as I like nature, wicked queens, and fairies, I’m not THAT delusional). She just continues to insist that Arthur is the best man in the world despite all evidence to the contrary, and I don’t understand why she would.
Also, Arthur is just kind of shady in general? Arthur is apparently ordering witch hunts? Guinevere does not question this for some reason. Guinevere does not question a lot of things throughout this story, and I’m left wanting to shake her a lot of times. More on that problem later, though. And also Arthur described Merlin as being a really great guy and then later Mordred tells Guinevere that Merlin assisted in the rape of Arthur’s mom?? I’m starting to be paranoid about everything Arthur Pendragon says and does, and I’m possibly starting to be more paranoid of Arthur than Mordred “Eco-terrorist” Pendragon??
Lancelot is really cool though–she’s a knight pretending to be a man, and she’s implied to be enby (she’s referred to with feminine pronouns so far, in case you were wondering). She and Guinevere have a really respectful relationship, and I do like them a lot, and I do ship them in their own way! It doesn’t have quite the chaotic appeal for me as Guinevere going full villainess, but I still like it!
I thought Brangien and Isolde’s relationship was really nice! Thus far, Brangien is not a stereotype or anything like that. We’ll see how it is when we actually see Isolde and Brangien together on-page, of course, but so far it’s really good! I love Brangien, and she’s my favorite character besides Mordred. I’ll admit I kind of brOTP ship Brangien and Mordred. I don’t want them to become a couple or anything like that, but I want them to become platonic partners in crime. Dindrane was also a really nice character. I don’t run into characters like her too often. I was a little weirded out that someone would rewrite Blanchefleur’s character into the harpy sister-in-law when, from all that I remember, she’s a perfectly nice character in the legends, but oh well. We didn’t see much of Blanchefleur on-page, so hopefully she gets some depth added in the next two books. I do like the focus on female friendships in this book. I will definitely say that. You can’t have a feminist book without female friendships!
Honestly, back to the love triangle, I feel like there’s something wrong with the fact that I feel that which direction the story takes is dependent on which person Guinevere takes as a romantic partner, but I don’t think it’s my fault. Guinevere’s decisions are often made based on what the plot requires rather than decisions a human would actually make in those circumstances. She’s not quite as developed as she should be, and she definitely isn’t developed enough to carry a plot by herself. And it kills me, because she had the potential to have so much bite. And then she didn’t.
Guinevere was also…maybe not quite as smart as she could have been. I understand that she’s lost a lot of her memories and isn’t working with all the information she needs! But she doesn’t ask any questions. She discovers something extremely shady about Merlin? She’ll put off asking Arthur. She doesn’t want to be a bother, and they’re so happy together right now! Arthur’s been keeping something from her? Well, she won’t ask much about it. Arthur can tell her in his own time! Literally everyone who has put her in this precarious situation has been lying to her? Well, she’ll just have to trust them, after all! Arthur is a good and true king, and he must know much better than she does! Has Arthur actually given her reason to believe he’s a good and true person to her? Well, no, but everyone else tells her he’s good and true, so he must be!
It. Is so. Infuriating. I want to shake her and tell her to wake up
and embrace her inner villainess.
I’m feeling kind of like an evil villain myself as I write this review. I’m like that annoying character who screams at the main character, “lEt ThE hAtE fLoW tHrOuGh YoU” or something.
(As a side note, the one thing I refuse to blame this book for is the love square. Arthuriana was built on the backs of unholy love pentagrams, and who am I to question that? Judging an Arthuriana book for a love triangle/square/pentagram isn’t really something I’m going to spend my time doing.)
I do have plenty of quotes I like in this book! Most of them from Mordred, of course. Allow me:
Mordred slipped into the shade, finding a cushion near Guinevere and lying idly at her side. “Did you miss me?” His voice slid beneath the chatter so no one else heard.
“Were you gone?” Guinevere asked.
Mordred put his hands to his heart, feigning being pierced by an arrow. He fell onto his back and closed his eyes.
“Are you going to nap instead of hunt?” Brangien asked, cross.
Look I have a type okay
“Brangien.” Mordred put a hand to his chest as though wounded himself. “You have the soul and imagination of a hammer. Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”
Yeah so he’s the dumb hot villain that I will hopefully forget about/feel embarrassed for liking soon enough, but until then, let me enjoy my bright spot of a slightly disappointing novel in peace.
Am I disgusted with the fact that the hot villainous eco-terrorist is, yet again, my favorite character? Absolutely. Am I going to think about why that is? Absolutely not. I feel I would find many things about myself I would be better off not knowing.
In conclusion, do I like the book? Yes. It was entertaining and funny, even if it wasn’t, again, as developed a book as it could have been. The side characters were wonderful. I think my issues with the book could definitely be solved by the sequels. The problem is, they could also be made a lot worse, and I’m really unsure which direction this trilogy is going to take. I might wait for reviews of the next two books and try to find out what happens before I read (yes, I am one of those psychopaths who doesn’t mind spoiling a book for myself).
But it did really frustrate me to see Guinevere choose the person who she knows has been lying to her and undervaluing her the whole novel. I didn’t understand why she would. I think this book would have done way better as a dark retelling in the vein of Elizabeth Frankenstein, where we know there isn’t really supposed to be a good guy, except for the poor heroine trying to navigate it all. The Guinevere Deception is definitely not the worst book, not at all! But I am left with wracking doubt for the sequels, and there are many, many books that have never left me feeling like that at all.
Also, I was having trouble imagining Guinevere so then I just imagined her as looking like Wen Qing from The Untamed instead, because Wen Qing is beautiful. This is a completely irrelevant fact that I will probably delete before I post the review.