And we dream in the night
Of a city descending
With the sun in the center
And a peace unending
~Carry the Fire, by Andrew Peterson
The hardest part of reviewing a book that you love is finding words eloquent enough to express how much you enjoyed it. I've definitely faced this with Pendragon's Heir, a novel about the quest for the Holy Grail from the perspective of Arthur's daughter.
It's coming March 26th, folks. And it's fantastic.
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?
Perhaps I should give a full disclosure at the beginning and say I was a beta reader for this book for the last couple of drafts. That being the case, I have some amount of natural bias, but I'm committed to an honest review in spite of that.
I knew absolutely nothing about Arthurian legend when she sent it to me, except vague ideas of the Round Table and Lancelot and Guinevere; so I got to read about Arthur and Pendragon's Heir with fresh eyes. That was a magical experience. Reading this latest draft was only a further pleasure. The plotting is impeccable, and the author gets things done without an ounce of excess. It takes a lot of effort to write like that. I've been trying to figure out how to describe Suzannah's writing, and while I haven't hit on a perfect comparison, it reminds me in many ways of a Howard Pyle or Roger Lancelyn Green story: it isn't told cinematically, as so many modern books are, but in the good, old-fashioned narration of books before televisions were invented.
Pendragon's Heir's main conflict is of imperfect men striving to build the perfect kingdom of God on earth. It's also a conflict between two potentially illegitimate heirs of Arthur, and which one the kingdom rightfully belongs to. Furthermore, the Round Table seems to be crumbling with corruption from the inside, and Blanche and her knight Perceval wrestle with the question: can the City of God be built by imperfect people?
“I mean,” he said, “that by your own showing, the greatest threat to heaven comes from within the ranks of the angels themselves. Before you can prove to me that heroes can defeat villains with nothing but the purest chivalric ideals, you must convince me that heroes do exist, and that villains are not a fanciful tale for children. You must tell me, sir, if you dare, that you are incorruptible, and that your colleagues and commanders are as pure as you. Your health.” ~Pendragon's Heir, chapter 11Suzannah's handling of Lancelot and Guinevere's story was fresh and brilliant, with some surprising twists. Also, shall we say, more redemptive? Instead of just setting out the facts, she explores the moral implications afterwards, and I like a book like that.
This book avoids moral compromise and unwanted bits without being shallow. You won't find language or explicit sex, but that doesn't prevent Suzannah from tackling adult issues in a mature, professional manner. Adultery, betrayal, illegitimacy, and even lust are all themes she addresses, especially with the Lancelot and Guinevere plot. Witchcraft and the limits of its ability is another significant theme in the story. I'll admit that this last-mentioned challenged and worried me sometimes, but it served to deepen my perspective on biblical portrayals of good and evil. If you're comfortable with Lewis and Tolkien, or Arthurian legends themselves for that matter, you should be fine with Pendragon's Heir.
Ok. Now for the characters.
Blanchefleur herself strikes the happy balance of a character who has a lot to learn, but who doesn't make herself unlikable while doing it. The way she learned to embrace her role as protector of the Holy Grail, while at the same time never quite losing her yearning for gaslight and tea, made her a sympathetic protagonist.
Dare I say how awesome her knight, Perceval, is? I tried to express my liking for him once, in compatibility with my role of encouraging beta reader, but was promptly told by the author not to lose myself to dangerous fantasies: I don't know whether to feel bad or not. I mean, are you sure your appreciation of Perceval isn't becoming a mite unhealthy? I think...I think you may even love him more than I do at this point, which is...weird.
One can only try. So I'll just content myself with saying he's far from perfect, just like Blanche, but I appreciated his ebullient view of life and steadfast commitment to the City of Logres.
Other gallant knights I enjoyed making the acquaintance of were Gareth, Gaheris, and Gawain. A lot of the knights only had cameo scenes due to the fact that Blanchefleur doesn't get to meet many of them, but they all had a human touch and their personalities were clearly drawn. Nerys the fay, with eyes like unfathomable pools, Heilyn the faithful squire, and faithful old Sir Ector made for a wonderful supporting cast. But my favorite side character was definitely Branwan. Young and bubbly, she reminded me of a lot of dominion-minded young women who are true of heart, but find it hard to express just how deeply they think about things: Blanchefleur felt a quick rush of affection for her. When the world frowned, Branwen went on smiling. There was a heart of steel under all that froth and bubble.
There were a couple of flaws here and there. The constant use of 'said' dialogue tags became a distraction. Galahad, a knight figured prominently in Part Two, had a peace with his parent's sins that I thought would have tied in significantly with Blanchefleur coming to peace with her own birth, but those particular character arcs never intersected. The conflict of Guinevere and Lancelot was put on hold for a long time in Part Two. On a couple of occasions the characters seemed to stuff natural feelings down in their pursuit for a perfect Logres. But the virtues of this book far, far outweigh the flaws.
Sometimes the best thing about Pendragon's Heir was that I didn't know the end. I didn't know if Perceval lived or died. I didn't know if Blanchefleur was real. I didn't know what happened to Morgan, and I once wrote Suzannah and told her I thought there would be a huge battle coming eventually, but I had no concrete evidence to back it up. Early on in the book I looked up a couple of people on Wikipedia, but I quickly stopped when I realized it would spoil the plot. I'm so glad I didn't know, because I may be one of few who can read Pendragon's Heir without the prior knowledge of how the story ended in other editions of Arthurian legend.
There are many things I want to say and can't. We'll have to create a Pendragon's Heir Fan Club or something, where those who read it can talk about the spoiler-y bits. It's a book that's thoroughly Arthurian, and yet eminently applicable to life today.
The most fitting way I can think of to end this review is a verse from the hymn that expresses so many themes of Pendragon's Heir: one church, one communion, one struggle, built on the one Cornerstone Jesus Christ:
’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
Such was the dream of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in Pendragon's Heir. I highly recommend it.