Cary James,
King & Raven
(Tor, 1995)

King & Raven by Cary James is not a tale of King Arthur told through the eyes of any king, queen or nobleman. Rather, we see the glory of Camelot through the eyes of a humble peasant, a boy who knows too well that knights are courtly and kind to those of their same status, but that peasants can expect little mercy or justice.

Michael, called Raven by his sister, lives in the shadow of Camelot, where he has learned to admire the pageantry from afar while remaining invisible to those above his class. He overcomes his fear of knights and kings after a band of drunken warriors in Camelot's service rape and kill his beloved sister. He, with his father, appeals to King Arthur for justice, but there is little justice to be had for a peasant in that noble court. Still, Michael does manage to get noticed, enough to gain employment there as a servant.

But the knights who killed his sister won't forget the peasant brat who dared accuse them in front of their king. In fear of his life, he flees England, assuming the name Michel de Verdeur (Michael of Greensfarm), and taking service as a squire in Brittany across the sea. There, his abilities, loyalty and bravery earn him a knighthood -- a position from which he is able to finally seek revenge. But when his new lord sends him to Camelot on an ambassadorial mission, he learns that revenge isn't always easy to take.

From that point on, Michel plays a vital role in the events leading up to Camelot's fall. And that is, perhaps, where James erred in the writing. While the novel started by giving us the outside perspective of familiar stories as witnessed by a minor player, James turns Michel into a key participant. He's not just a knight, he's one of the best -- perhaps even better than Gawain and Lancelot. He's also a bit more educated, courtly and refined than a peasant should be ... almost as if, having created the character, he became too proud of him and wouldn't settle on anything less than the best for Michel.

Likewise, nearly every woman in the book falls in love with him, or at least wants to seduce him, and he loses his own heart so quickly and so often that it becomes hard to take his protestations of love very seriously.

But you can't accuse James of prettifying the brutal nature of hacking swords and torn flesh. His battles, both man-to-man and melee, have a very real feel (although I believe the author has an exaggerated notion of what a sword can do to armor). He also chose to follow the common, romanticized view of Camelot, writing of a lifestyle more appropriate in many ways to the 14th century than the sixth.

Still, King & Raven is definitely a recommended read for fans of Arthurian lore, offering a new perspective on the familiar legends. It's not always a pleasant or easy view to take, but it carries a ring of authenticity.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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