There’s a reason the Arthurian legend has lived so long. It’s a great combination of the classic hero’s journey with plenty of magic and mysticism. It has weathered the ages better than even Saint George and his slain dragons, and not just because Monty Python didn’t make a spoof of that piece of English storytelling canon. As enchanting as Arthur’s nobility is, the morally gray—or straight-up evil—characters aren’t forgotten, either. And that wide cast of characters allows for almost endless variation.
It’s that variation I love the most, so I probably should have guessed that Nicola Griffith’s Spear would become a new obsession. Somehow, I was still caught off guard by this brief but magical and thoroughly stirring riff on the King Arthur tale.
Peretur grows up living in a cave with her overprotective mother, who won’t tell Peretur why they must be so secretive, who her father is—or even her name, until Peretur demands it. But Peretur has a heart for adventure, and after a chance encounter with three of King Artos’s knights, she feels she has found her destiny. Defying her mother, she sets out determined to become a knight herself. Disguising herself as a young man, she drifts from homestead to town to farm to village, building strength and honing her fighting skills (and, when there’s time, wooing pretty country girls). To make a name for herself worthy of being accepted in Caer Leon, Peretur breaks up rings of bandits and challenges the other legendary figures bounding around this Celtic and Welsh-inspired countryside.
Once finally within Caer Leon’s walls and having earned the respect of Artos’s most trusted knights, Peretur feels as though she has found where she belongs. Artos, though, distrusts this young warrior in front of him, and will not accept Peretur as a knight. It isn’t until Peretur meets and, ahem, befriends Artos’s sorceress, Nimue, that she begins to understand why Artos is suspicious of her. Not only that, but why she can anticipate the moves of her foes, and even why her mother was filled with so many secrets. And just in time—as the quest for the holy grail takes Caer Leon by storm, Peretur has to use all of her knowledge and strength to keep the relic from falling into the wrong hands.
Peretur is at once the exemplification of Arthurian nobility and the subversion of it. Her belief in all King Artos stands for—and her determination in living up to that standard of nobility even when Artos’ knights or the king himself may stray from that line—is heroic. Griffith keeps Peretur’s nobility from becoming bland or a unrelatable, however, with a rich internality that shows Peretur’s desires and fears, and her periodic self-doubt about how good of a person she really is capable of being. She’s very much an underdog from the start of her journey, too, and that and the continued secret of her gender only heighten the tension.
Griffith’s deft hand also shows in how she has handled that tension of Peretur’s gender. Often, genderbent characters rely on stereotypes on either end of the spectrum to drive home that particular plot point. Peretur doesn’t feel like a girl dressed as a boy; she feels like a warrior whose assigned and self-identified gender is incompatible with social norms, and employs minor deception as a way of bridging that gap in public. Her sexuality, too, feels like an authentic part of her character rather than a taped-on attempt at inclusivity. Peretur is Peretur, as real as any story-tale figure can be.
The supporting characters feel realistic, too, from Kai’s sharp tempter and unwavering loyalty to Artos’s goodness challenged by the reality of leadership, as well as the gently maddening effect the magic of Excaliber has on him. Spear feels from start to finish like a myth heard long ago, but at its heart are flawed and nuanced people who are generally trying their best. I loved them all.
Spear is short, less than two hundred pages, though only once or twice did it feel the least bit rushed. Griffith writes in her author’s notes that this started as a story for the anthology Sword Stone Tablet, a collection of Arthurian retellings that also happens to be on my TBR. That short story spiraled out of control and became a novella all its own, and I’m glad it did. If you have the least bit of interest in swords or knights or daring deeds, you can’t miss with Spear.
One more note: It isn’t often that I have an opinion about how books should be read. Hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook—it’s all reading, just pick whichever works for you. Occasionally there will be something like Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, which is written in verse and has enough of a visual aspect to its storytelling that I think it’s best experienced with a physical book. In the case of Spear, I’m sure it’s great in black and white, but I happened to get it in audiobook form, and absolutely recommend it. Griffith narrates it brilliantly, and the whole time I felt like I was sitting around a fire, hearing a most epic tale. Just as this kind of story has been told for centuries, and, I suspect, how it wants to be told today.