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Sarah Zettel
book cover

2004, March, Luna
Buy from Amazon.com (trade paperback)

Who recommends: Lynn, Preeti, Linda
Who discommends: Margaret

Forget everything I said about the Luna line and the first two books. Sarah Zettel's IN CAMELOT'S SHADOW is entirely different. I just finished it about an hour ago, and last night I was reading portions of it to my friend because even single paragraphs are so powerful. Buy it! Buy it now! (I almost didn't. I'm more or less Arthuriana-ed out, and was skeptical that something new could be done with such a familiar story. I shudder to think I might have missed IN CAMELOT'S SHADOW.)

The story manages to bring the characters of Arthurian legend we are familiar with--Gawain, Agravain, the Green Knight--and make them fresh without distorting the substance of the stories we know: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady.

A knight and his pregnant lady are traveling, she falls ill, and they need help. They meet a sorceror, Euberacon, and the knight bargains with him to save his lady for a promise of the child to be born. Nineteen years later, the knight is not allowing the daughter born that night, Risa, to be wed because of his promise to the sorcerer. She finds this out, flees, and is rescued by Gawain, who is investigating a planned Saxon uprising, ten years into Arthur's peace.

The characters, even the minor ones, come alive in just a few paragraphs. Even the villains, in the depths of doing evil, are real. There are varied antagonists, Saxons, Morgaine with a young son, and Morgaine's devoted servant, a fearsome sorceress who was rescued by Morgaine and worships her.

The story is deep with association and imagery. There is Green Knight, something far more powerful than a mere sorceror, who is also the Green Man. There is the background of Euberacon, a man who fled the Constantinople of Justinian and Theodora because of failed sorcerous plots there.

And the language rang true for me. There wasn't the awkward "speaking forsoothly; the language sounded a little like Old English, yet it avoided any archaisms to jar the ear and mind. At one point I clearly noticed that Zettel had indicated a change from the formal to the intimate mode of address, even though we no longer preserve that in modern English. (I don't remember exactly how she did it, but it was clear in the dialogue and *extremely* cool.)

I started to try to pick a sample paragraph or two to quote from the book to show the smoothness and rich texture of the writing but got sucked back into the story. I kept wanting to quote just another bit, then another bit, then another bit.

Early in the book, Risa gives a good yet believable account of herself in dangerous situations, including in a seige and in a battle on the road. Later in the book when she is in danger and being taunted that Gawain may be untrue, she doesn't falter. She does think that if he is untrue, she has still just hidden a knife from a meal and can try to help herself. She's just a great heroine. And Gawain...sigh. I'm now half in love with him; he is tenderhearted, gallant, and true.

Zettel has *brilliantly* made a familiar story fresh and vibrant. The story just sings.--Lynn (3 Mar 04)

I read my first book from the Luna line and by Sarah Zettel: IN CAMELOT'S SHADOW. I'm happy to report it was an absorbing read. The story focuses on Risa, a girl who manages to save herself from attacks from her newly-discovered enemies with help from the gallant knight Gawain, who is nephew and heir to King Arthur. Gawain's weakness is women in need, so a primary tension (his) in the romance is whether his feelings for Risa have staying power. Another (hers) is whether a baron's daughter fleeing her family with only a horse can aspire to marry Gawain.

Since I actively avoid Arthurian retellings, I had some resistance to this story going in. But I think because this installment didn't dwell on Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot--although it seemed clear future books might--I was more open to the story. Plus the story of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is my hands-down favorite remembered Arthurian tale from my childhood. I liked the way Zettel refashioned the Gawain stories, fleshing them out and tying them together in a satisfying way. Well, except for at the end. The resolutions felt less "grounded, more fairy-tale-like than the rest of the story.

Quick recap of the plot: Risa's father is a baron who promised his unborn daughter to a sorcerer in exchange for having his wife cured of illness. Nineteen years later, Risa is horrified to discover this and runs off to seek help. Her path intersects Gawain's on the road as she's beset by attacks from the sorcerer come to claim her and his scary witch colleague. Gawain is much taken by Risa's bravery in the face of adversity and her beauty; she, by his caring, strength, and general studliness. Together they manage to foil the sorcerer and witch's plots against Arthur's Camelot.

If you care, in this book Arthur and Guinevere are noble and good, Lancelot is a glory hound, Merlin is bland, Morgaine is scheming and probably evil, and her son Mordred still a child. As much as I liked IN CAMELOT'S SHADOW, I don't know if I want to read more if they're about these very familiar characters coming to the fore. I recommend this one, though.--Preeti (13 Mar 04)

I just finished this and highly enjoyed it too. Thanks for the recommends. I never would have tried it normally since I avoid anything that says "Arthurian" or "Camelot" in it. But since this didn't center on Arthur and Lancelot, I was able to enjoy it thoroughly. I loved Zettel's writing; it gave you a real feeling for the time period without being boring.--Linda (25 Mar 04)

I was delighted to find IN CAMELOT'S SHADOW in the Library but my delight did not survive the first chapter. I know this book has been recommended, and I don't wish to hurt anyone's feeling, but I was Not Impressed. The book is so easy to put down that I'm only half way through.

1) I don't really care about any of the characters.

2) Too many Americanisms/modernisms. Also, although "cadre" is used in its technically correct sense, it jarred--too much associated with Communism.

3) Awkward overlay of standard romance story over Arthurian tale. One example: in romances I get irritated by the heroine's persistent musings: "I love him but there is no hope for me because how could such a rich/ important/ wealthy/ handsome/ tall/ powerful/ intelligent man possibly fall in love with/marry such a poor/ lowly/ plain/ tall/ short/ young/ old/ serious/ frivolous girl/ woman/ lady as I am?" and I really, really don't want them popping up in my fantasy as well. Yes. I know it is sometimes reasonable for the heroine to think this but must they go on about it?

4) As in all Arthurian stuff you just know it will all end in tears--well, betrayal and death, anyway--but I thought it a real downer having a preface that rubbed it in.

5) In the preface, Kai, in Ireland, writes of going to the seashore looking for anyone coming from the west, from his old home. This struck me as rather odd as America, not Britain, is to the west of Ireland.

6) Also in the preface, Kai comments on all the exaggerated, if not false, stories that had arisen about Arthur etc. Well, there may have been stories but there is no contemporary written indication of them. All the Arthurian trappings--knights, round tables, distressed damsels, Merlin, Morgan, Gawain, magic etc are Medieval additions, hundreds of years later.

7) Risa's bow and arrows. She couldn't be using a crossbow (takes too long to load) or a longbow (not invented yet) but could any other bow have been effective in the siege?

Good points:
1) Arthurian setting in correct period.

2) Links to Justinian and Theodora--this is the first book I've come across that notes that Arthur and Justinian were contemporaries.

3) No Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle (so far anyway)

****[and later]****

I made a real effort and finished this book. I even managed to find a good bit: Risa's experiences while a captive. I thought that was interesting and well done. Otherwise... Oh dear.

For a start the cover is silly. She is definitely holding a longbow 500 years before its invention, and what's holding the point of the arrow up? It should be her fingers, but they are too far down. And what's she doing with a loose scarf flapping round her face? A serious hazard and it will certainly get in the way at a critical moment.


I really objected to the mangling of the stories of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and "The Loathly Lady". The author has taken what she wants while completely disregarding the significance of the stories. I get the distinct impression that she hadn't read either of these stories before deciding to write the book and then only read them with an eye to what would be useful. The central point of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is that Gawain does something shameful. To mangle the story to turn this shameful act into an honourable one is deplorable. The story of the Loathly Lady hinges on the question "What do all women want?" and her transformation comes from the answer to the question, not from being recognised by her lover, which is another story entirely.

I am bothered by Risa's father. OK, I can understand his agreeing to sacrifice his as-yet-unborn child to save his wife's life. I can understand why he didn't tell his wife or daughter about it. I can understand why he wasn't loving towards his daughter. However, we have a man prepared to allow a horrible act in order to keep his wife's life and love, who then spends the next 19 years behaving in a way guaranteed to lose his wife's love. And why doesn't he ask Arthur for help? A good king with a powerful magician seem just the thing. Anyway, surely it's his duty to mention there's a sorcerer around? Also, why did the sorcerer insist that Risa's father retrieve her? It wasn't as if that was the only way he could get her, either by the terms of the agreement or because it was too difficult otherwise, because he was perfectly willing to grab her when she left home and ended up extracting her from among a group of court ladies. So why did he insist her father get her back? Bloody-mindedness?

No, as far as Arthurian retellings go, spare me from Sarah Zettel. However I can strongly recommend Gerald Morris and Robert Newman, although their books are aimed at younger readers.--Margaret (18 Jul 04)

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