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The Sword of the Rightful King
Jane Yolen
Harcourt, 368 pages

The Sword of the Rightful King
Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th century because of her many fairy tales and story books. She has written over 150 books for children, young adults and adults, along with hundreds of stories and poems. She's a past-president of SFWA and has been a member of the Board of Directors of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) since its inception.

Jane Yolen Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Sister Emily's Lightship
SF Site Review: The Wizard's Map
SF Site Review: Armageddon Summer
SF Site Review: Here There Be Dragons
SF Site Review: The Sea Man
SF Site Review: Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast
SF Site Review: The Transfigured Hart

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

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'"In Christ's name, Arthur. Christ's name. Remember -- we are all Christians now." The wizard's tone turned sharp, and he held up a warning finger that was as gnarled as an old tree.'
Like many people, I've always been attracted by the seductive lure of Arthurian legend, and a tale of an alternate Arthur sounded rather promising. In this case, the premise revolves around an uncertain young king, newly crowned, and struggling to unite those who have yet to fully accept him as their ruler. The archetypal magician, Merlin, is here renamed Merlinnus, and his former apprentice Morgan le Fay, now called Morgause, are both attempting to use their subtle magics and the symbol of Excalibur, here named Caliburnus, to influence the once and future king of Camelot, now Cadbury. Jane Yolen seems to have decided that the confusion caused by renaming Morgan la Fey with the name of another, entirely different, character in Arthurian myth, doesn't matter. Similarly, Caliburnus is a Latin word meaning 'steel,' and also is the source of the more common name, Excalibur.

Yolen's King Arthur is depicted as a grudging Christian, who has come to power soon after the Roman occupation of Great Britain has ended. How this came about, and what part Arthur may have played in sending the Romans packing, is never explained. All we know is what we see, and this Arthur is drawn as a beefy, mildly charismatic fellow of good heart. A man who is far from stupid, but so young and inexperienced as to be heavily reliant on Merlinnus for advice on how to handle difficult matters, such as affairs of state. The sheer force of character, regal nature and charisma of the original Arthur are strangely absent. This malaise afflicts much of the central cast, with the exception of Lancelot, who appears just as fanatical as the traditional king's champion.

Into the midst of all the pseudo-political posturing comes a mysterious boy, who says his name is Gawen. True to legendary form, Merlinnus soon realises that the newcomer is not who he claims to be. This is where the plot takes a rather bizarre turn. Merlinnus has certain knowledge that the evil North Witch has sent an assassin to kill the king, in the hope of replacing him with one of her own sons, two of whom are also in Arthur's Court. Yet, with a casual disregard for the obvious danger, the magician leads Gawen right into Arthur's presence, not even bothering to see if he is armed. Things get even stranger when the trio set off to the place where Merlinnus has stashed the sword, Caliburnus. In Yolen's world, the sword in the stone retains its symbolic importance, but does not convince as a supernatural talisman. Arthur, Merlinnus and Gawen stand around, discussing dangerous secrets, including matters crucial to the king's continued rule. At this point, I got the impression that the author was either doing something utterly brilliant, that I just couldn't see, or the story was so lacking in sparkle that it was duller than dishwater. Unfortunately, it proved to be the latter.

Try and try again as I did to like this book, The Sword of the Rightful King kept on failing to meet my expectations. Arthur and Kay reminded me of Bill and Ted's slightly smarter brothers, having an Arthurian adventure. Much as I wanted to engage with the characters, I was too often reminded that they lacked the credibility and poise of the originals. Any embodiment of Merlin should, in my humble estimation, evoke a sense of wonder and mystery. But Merlinnus came across as a dishevelled conjurer, whose magic was mostly the power of suggestion. This had the effect of replacing the grandeur and electric tension of classic Arthurian legend, with a rather drab sword and sleight-of-hand show.

However, this is just an opinion from someone who has read a couple of hundred fantasy novels. Jane Yolen has written over 200 books, and a small army of readers obviously love them. The converted, I'm sure, will lap up this title, but it may disappoint new readers among today's more sophisticated public. Many of whom want a lot more than fantasy by numbers. In a marketplace where the audience has Lemony Snickett, Phillip Pullman and J.K. Rowling, that which is mediocre and mundane doesn't do the job, no matter how many titles the author has under her belt. An observation which perhaps proves the saying, less is more.

Copyright © 2005 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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