Review: Of Chivalry and Revenge

The latest ARC I received from Celeste Baxendell is Of Chivalry and Revenge, a perspective swap on the classic King Arthur tales in which Morgana, who is typically portrayed as a villain, gets her happy ending. This book is different from anything else I've read by Celeste Baxendell. Usually, her stories are long and complex, introducing characters and worlds that take a lot of time and effort to keep track of. That formula worked well in Cinders of Glass, which is currently my favorite "Cinderella" retelling. Here, everything is stripped down to brass tacks, using only the original Arthurian lore with no new magic systems or settings to keep track of. With its shorter length and simpler plot, this book would have fit perfectly with the multi-author Villain's Ever After series to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if it was initially intended for that.

Most of my Arthurian knowledge comes from vague high school memories, the BBC's Merlin series, and obscure references in Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders. This book relies heavily on the original source material but flips things around just enough to sympathize with Morgana. When I say "just enough," I mean it. Morgana is by no means a purely sympathetic character here. She tries to kill King Arthur multiple times and genuinely believes that she is evil until near the end. It is told from the perspectives of both Morgana and Lancelot, who is her love interest in this version of the story. Lancelot is very much the character we are familiar with from legend--a brave and noble night who briefly has eyes for Queen Guinevere. However, in this version, Morgana is the one who truly holds his heart. It reads like a simplified version of Celeste Baxendell's last book, Sands of Deceit, which was also about a character who needed the love of a good man to give up her wicked ways.

The book is short enough to be completed within a day or two, though I would argue that most of the story is already resolved after the first half, which is told from Morgan's perspective. The second half reiterates a lot of what we've already been told, this time from Lancelot's perspective. I'm not sure I enjoyed the backtracking element that much. The book may have been more cohesive if it alternated perspectives within the same timeline like many other books in this style tend to do. There wasn't enough new content for Lancelot to justify retelling the entire story a second time. Even Morgana's section seemed lacking, and her transition to goodness wasn't that easy to swallow after the book starts with her intending to kill Arthur and only saving him by accident. It's definitely a modern story that showcases recent media trends of forgiving villains instead of defeating them.

Where this book really falls short is its lack of detail about Merlin, a beloved character with a variety of iterations in many forms of media. In this version, Merlin is portrayed as a master manipulator who exhibits his control over Morgana by erasing her memories. Merlin is already dead by the time this story begins, and there are no flashback sequences that reveal his true nature and intent. It seems like it was building him up as a villain, which would have been very interesting because that is not something that I've seen done before. Yet, it never quite explains his motivations in controlling Morgana and whether or not he gave the same despicable treatment to anyone else, particularly another apprentice we meet at the end of the book. It was just enough of a tease to make me want to know more and never quite satisfied that craving.

Overall, Of Chivalry and Revenge is a good book if you are in the mood for something light and don't have a lot of time to delve into a complex fantasy world. Most people should already be familiar with the characters going in, so no previous knowledge of the Bewitching Fairy Tales series or any other new lore is necessary. If you are looking for a more complex psychological drama, you probably won't find that here. I think if this book had a prequel that went into detail about how Merlin was using Morgana and why she turned evil, it would be a more compelling read than this was.


Sugar said…
Well, it's interesting to see a woman who needs a good man to redeem herself as opposed to the traditional boy-needs-a-good-girl trope...unfortunately this can go too far for women who become rehab centers for violent men. Like in some manga.
At least here Lancelot isn't in an adulterous relationship with the queen.

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