I have been in an Arthurian sort of mood this week. If you should ever find yourself in an Arthurian sort of mood then Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve is one I would definitely recommend. Be warned that this is one of those stories that tries to place Arthur in his actual historical context. This not Le Morte d'Arthur. Not anywhere close, and that is actually my favorite thing about it. I like it when an author tries to separate the man from the myth, and Reeve does this while adding a clever twist that speaks of the power of story.
Gwyna is a child when Arthur's war band comes and destroys her master's home. Fleeing the burning wreckage, she manages to escape by swimming away in the river. Little does she know she has been seen by Myrddin, a bard and storyteller, who travels with Arthur. Seeing that Gwyna will be useful to him in his quest to help Arthur rule all of Britain, Myrddin makes Gwyna his servant. Over the course of her years in Arthur's band, disguised as a boy, and then her years as a lady in waiting to Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar, Gwyna receives a first class education in how to manipulate the populace and turn a man into a legend.
Arthur, in this version, is not a nice man. At all. He is a thief, a bully, a brigand. He is unpredictable, has a fierce temper, and is not a thinker. He leaves the thinking to Myrddin, who is compelled to see a united Britain and has chosen Arthur as the most likely to lead it. So Myrrdin advises him and in the meantime weaves stories about Arthur's splendid deeds and honorable demeanor. I love the way Reeve juxtaposes his actual Arthur and the Arthur of lore. Gwyna will relate some terrible scene Arthur has enacted and follow it with one of Myrrdin's tales.The tales refer to some of the more familiar legends while the actual Arthur scenes depict 5th/6th century Britain in all its bloody and savage glory.
In addition to the political manipulation aspect of the story Reeve introduces other interesting themes and concepts to ponder over and discuss. Religion is explored quite a bit. There is a split between those who practice Christianity and those who practice the old ways, with a great majority of people combining the two in some fashion. Myrddin, who doesn't believe in any of it, uses it to manipulate people to think what he wants them to. Gender roles are also explored, there are several instances where characters use the dress of the opposite sex to hide themselves in plain sight. In these instances it is stressed that it is about more than putting on the clothes and changing your hair. Reeve plays with this throughout the tale in different and interesting ways.
My only issue with it is the characters were not as well developed as I like. Myrddin was the most complex of the lot. Gwenhwyfar was also made interesting. Most of the others were types. Gwyna, as the main character, felt far too flat to me. She goes through so much and yet none of it seems to make an impression on her. She relates it all as though seeing it from a distance. She takes up the art of storytelling she learns from Myrddin so that may account for some of that, but in telling this, her true story, you would think she would be more invested. I also thought that the romance squashed into the end was rather unnecessary, not developed , and rather inexplicable. It may have made sense if it had been explored at all but it was just sort of tacked on to the mad rush to the end so left me with a "why is this even here" feeling.
Still, if you are someone who enjoys different takes on Arthurian lore or well done historical fiction you should find this enjoyable. It should be noted that this is very well done historical fiction. True, Reeve invented his own take on Arthur, but he nailed the setting perfectly.
Note on Content: This is definitely a book for teens or older. There is quite a bit of violence and blood (it was a violent and bloody time). Also, Gwenhwyfar's extramarital adventures play a big part in the plot (it is the story of Arthur). Nothing is described, but it is much alluded to.