Review: Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve

All right, I give up. Philip Reeve isn’t for me, and Arthurian stories may not be either. Here Lies Arthur is the story of Gwyna (if you are expecting her to turn out to be Guinevere, like I was, revise your expectations now and save yourself some confusion), who is taken in by Myrddin, a healer and wise man traveling with conquering soldier Arthur. At once Gwyna is caught up in Myrddin’s quest to make Arthur a legendary king capable of uniting all of Britain. It’s my favorite kind of story: a story about stories.

And yet, and yet.

One of the problems was all me, and I have this reaction to every Arthur story I read. When an Arthur story gets started, I start trying to figure out which version of the story the author’s going to be telling. Here Lies Arthur uses Welsh spellings, so with each character I had to first work out what the names were meant to be–and I won’t lie, I translated them all into Monty Python, which made it hard for me to take Bedwyr seriously (“Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone?”). And then I had to remember all the stories I know about them, from the cassette of King Arthur stories I had as a kid, from scraps of Mary Stewart, from Gerald Morris, from Malory, from T. H. White, and only after I’d done any of that could I pay attention to the story again. So that’s my thing. It’s not Philip Reeve’s fault. In fact, this is the bit that Philip Reeve does well: He shows us, through Gwyna, how all those different stories grow and thrive, how there can be a dozen versions of the same story without the listeners losing belief in them. But my restless unspoiled brain kept fretting over it.

Another problem that was all me: I want King Arthur to be wise and good and just and brave. I always do. When he’s not all that in the stories, they do not sparkle for me the same way. A lot of King Arthur retellings want to make Arthur be stupid, or an oaf, or a thug. Oh nasty and unscrupulous modifiliers! Leave me my knights in shining armor!

But I like to blame my bad reading experiences on other people, so let’s turn to the things for which Philip Reeve was responsible, shall we? The book was highly episodic, which I tend not to like, and at times this got to feeling like the author was trying to get in, hit each Arthur story (Guinevere, Grail, Green Knight), and get out. Gwyn(a)’s voice was inconsistent, and now and then she’d slip in a colloquialism that felt jarringly different to the rest of her narration (“We weren’t the first to go there, neither”). The book would switch suddenly into present tense for no apparent reason, and slip back out all casual-like, but I noticed and did not approve. What’s even worse for me, because I love point-of-view switches when they are done well, was that it also occasionally slipped into other characters’ perspective, when the narrative didn’t require it.

What do you require from King Arthur stories? Or do you not like King Arthur?

This has been for the R.I.P. Challenge. More books to come, and, I expect, better ones for me. 🙂

Who else has read it:

things mean a lot
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Bart’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Susan Hated Literature
A Bookshelf Monstrosity
Vulpes Libris
The Page Flipper

Tell me if I missed yours!