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Monday, October 7, 2013

Dragon's Child: The King Arthur Trilogy by M. K. Hume

M. K. Hume set out to retell the Arthur legends from a new perspective, using the strength of her knowledge about post-Roman Britain, and tomorrow, that dream makes it to American readers with the first book in the King Arthur Trilogy, Dragon's Child.

The novel accomplishes many things, including:

Describing the post-Roman ambiance
Showing Latin placenames for Arthurians sites
Explaining the controversy between Roman, Celtic, and Saxon factions
Revealing that Arthur had a wife before Guinevere
Being old fashioned

I'm not saying that last one is a bad thing. Old fashioned writing is clearly a matter of taste. The novel doesn't really fit in with contemporary historical fiction for two big reasons: the pacing and the point of view.

Pacing: I was puzzled as to why certain passages were emphasized with description, dialogue, and emotional analysis while others were glossed over. The first really big event occurs more than 100 pages in. A devastating evening at the villa turns into several highly detailed days of horrors which stand out all the more because of the surrounding summarizing passages. I already believed Caius was nasty and have a sense of some of the depraved things Romans did in history, so I'm not sure the scenes in which Caius's friends worship the death gods and Arthur exhumes the corpses of abused children were necessary. Perhaps the depth of Caius's evil is important in an upcoming book? For the rest of the novel, I couldn't decide whether it could be condensed to a normal-sized novel or split up even further into two or three. Sometimes, an event was discussed or pondered so much that when it happened, it was anticlimactic.

The pacing is also weighed down with complex turns of phrase: "Artorex easily parried Caius's blows, until a woolen mat brought him to grief when his foot slipped on its treacherous purchase." (page 111 of the advanced readers edition). There could be many ways to express this, but in an action sequence, "he slipped on a woolen mat" is most effective.

Point of view: This novel takes an omniscient stance, in which the narrator knows everything going on, down to the thoughts of various characters in a scene. My experience as an editor has convinced me that omniscience isn't an option for today's writers. I find that the writing is stronger when events can be described from a single character's perspective, and any switch in point of view is clearly signaled by a chapter or section break. However, books with an omniscient point of view are still published all the time, and an epic with so many characters is the best excuse I can think of for using it.

There is one gaffe in my advanced reader's edition that is a nightmare for all historical fiction authors: "The landscape was newly washed by the onset of spring into a tapestry of green and chocolate..." (p. 205) Green and what?

One thing I'm sure about post-Roman Britain is that they'd never heard of chocolate. Granted, the characters aren't savoring chocolate bonbons, but since they wouldn't have been able to use it to describe a color, either, the use of the word takes the reader out of the story. Much safer to say "brown."

That said, I really enjoyed spending time with some of the unexpected characters, like Ector, Livinia, Targo, and Gallia. Ygerne (Igraine) and Morgan have good psychological complexity. And I really liked everything in the list above (except the last one).

I highly recommend this book to readers who long for the days of all-knowing narrators who take you on long adventures under the assumption of certain heroic ideals. And that's what King Arthur is all about.