Nancy McKenzie,
The High Queen
(Del Rey, 1995)

Britain's at peace, the king and queen are in love, and all is right with the world.

Or so it might be, if The High Queen were a fairytale story. But this is Arthur's Britain, and the story has no choice but to end badly. But Nancy McKenzie's rich retelling of the saga is a worthwhile journey from start to finish. Her characterizations of Arthur and Guinevere are among the best, most detailed and most satisfying I've read.

The book, the second in a two-book series, begins with the Saxon threat already put down. The nation is united and peaceful -- but that doesn't mean there is a lack of action or turmoil. Courtly intrigue is common, particularly when Arthur's kin -- sisters Morgan and Morgause, nephews Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth, and nephew-son Mordred -- are involved. The sisters play havoc for the sake of malice, while the nephews (with the exception of the youngest, Gareth) are just plain unruly. Mordred, on the other hand, is far from the sinister character so commonly seen in Arthurian literature; he is an intelligent young man, sincere in his love of Arthur and his adopted mother Guinevere, and ambitious as a Pendragon should be. The thrilling, desperate conclusion comes about through a series of unavoidable events that are all the more tragic because of their inevitability.

McKenzie's Guinevere -- more mature and settled in her role than she was in the previous volume -- is the focus of the story, and she is a queen readers can respect, love and believe in. She is surrounded by characters that seem equally real, flesh-and-blood people rather than the myths or caricatures found in so much Arthurian fiction. Mordred in particular is a refreshing change of pace, and it's hard not to find yourself wishing the final scenes could somehow be changed.

It's a real trick to make characters worthy of so much care, but McKenzie handles it easily. This is a two-book series that avid Arthurian fans must read.

Note: The Child Queen and The High Queen were reprinted in 2002 as a single volume, Queen of Camelot.

by Tom Knapp
12 November 2005

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