Jane Yolen,
Sword of the Rightful King
(Harcourt, 2003)

When Jane Yolen's Sword of the Rightful King made its appearance on my "incoming books" shelf, I confess to having a dubious moment. Was it possible for even Jane Yolen to take on the King Arthur legend and have something new to say? Curiosity overcame skepticism; I took the book off the shelf and read the first few pages. And the next few, and the next....

Oh me of little faith. Jane Yolen has done it again and better than ever.

As is obvious by the title and cover, the novel centers around the legendary sword in the stone, but in Yolen's tale, Arthur is already High King of Britain. He is not, however, universally recognized as the "rightful" king, and without the support of all the factions of Britain, he cannot be a fully effective ruler.

Enter his adviser, Merlinnus, a mage who well understands that perception equals reality. He concocts a scheme intended to cement the loyalties of all of Britain: he devises the sword in the stone with its declarative inscription, arranges for it to be "discovered" and engineers the drama set for the summer solstice.

Meanwhile, four of the sons of Morgause, Queen of Orkney, are on their way to Arthur's court. Gawaine, the eldest, is already one of Arthur's Companions, and he is bringing his brothers Agravaine, Gareth and Gaheris to the court for the first time. Morgause, a sorceress in her own right, is determined to bring a premature end to Arthur's reign and sends an assassin to the court as well, although no one -- possibly not even the assassin himself -- knows who it is.

At the same time, Merlinnus has acquired an apprentice, Gawen, who originally intended to be one of the Companions. Gawen is clever, observant and thoughtful, a pivotal if mysterious character who adds a thread of complexity to the novel.

Yolen renders the figures of Arthurian legend into living breathing human beings, well-rounded and complex, while scrupulously returning to the root of legend. Morgause, not the much-maligned Morgan le Fay, is the mother of Mordred (here Medraut), the result of an incestuous affair with her half-brother Arthur -- an affair only subtly hinted at in Yolen's novel. This choice not only undoes a popular misconception about Morgan le Fay but also provides strong motivation for Morgause. Merlinnus might bear a surface resemblance to Shakespeare's old windbag Polonius, but under the old-man mask is a keen and clever mind. Sir Kay is well intentioned, self-important, eager to please and impress, and he is completely believable and even sympathetic.

The plot is the stuff of legend as well as being as contemporary as the morning headlines. Yolen keeps it moving, switching points of view to heighten the suspense and keeping the various threads so tightly woven that the reader is genuinely surprised at some of the developments. While the novel appears to be intended to stand alone and does it well, I caught sight of potential for further tales, should Yolen be so inspired. (I hope!)

Most important, Yolen demonstrates her respect for her audience. Young adults are not children, and Yolen's writing reflects her understanding of that concept. The story respects an advanced level of comprehension and gives young adults characters bearing traits with which they can readily identify: Arthur's restlessness, Gawaine's inner struggle, Agravaine's passion, Kay's need for recognition, even Morgause's bitterness. Yet these traits are subtly integrated into the characters, not labels written in bold bright letters, enhancing the appeal to the audience.

Yolen's Sword of the Rightful King succeeds with its foundation of careful research, its authentic characters and a plot "twist" that is solidly supported in the novel, and it earns a rightful place on any recommended reading shelf.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 10 October 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.