Alice Borchardt, The Dragon Queen (Ballantine Books, 2001)

Subtitled "The tales of Guinevere," this is the first book in a new series by the author of the "Silver Wolf" historical fantasies. She’s not the first fantasy writer to be seduced by the Arthurian myth of course, nor the first to write from the perspective of Guinevere. Indeed, this series comes hot on the heels of Rosalind Miles' Guinevere books, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s "Avalon" tales.

What’s clear from the outset is that Borchardt hasn’t so much sought (like her predecessors), to reinterpret the existing myth, but to create a wholly original work of fantasy fiction around that myth’s characters. It’s an approach that’s both potentially liberating in its range of possibilities, and fraught with danger. After all, "The Matter of Britain," is something rather more than a "quaint old story," and its central characters are more than "familiar," or "well-loved." To those of us who live in the West of Britain, Arthur is inescapable. He’s in the place names (Camelford, Tintagel, Glastonbury) and the landscape. The red Pendragon is displayed on the flag of Wales against the green and white of the Tudors, a deliberate and permanent declaration of the "right" of the "one king" to rule all Britain. Rumour even has it that HRH Prince Charles (who is both Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall), was strongly advised against naming his eldest son "Arthur," as the succession of "another" King Arthur to the throne would be regarded as intolerable....

Borchardt (needless to say) is well insulated by distance and nationality from both the arcane machinations of British Royalty and the enduring superstitions of horny-handed rural peasantry like me! Borchardt’s existing reputation is founded on her character Maeniel, a half-wolf shape-shifter who enlivened the landscape of ancient Rome in the aforementioned "Silver Wolf" series. Guess what, folks? He’s come to rescue Britain in its hour of need! Actually, he’s been sent to Britain to deliver a message to king Vortigen, but all hell breaks loose when Vortigen is killed in a big fight, kicked off by the evil archdruid Merlin, who’s shacked up in Cornwall with Igraine. Merlin plans to rule Britain through Igraine’s son, Arthur (fathered by Uther Pendragon), who can’t be a "proper" king unless he’s married to Guinevere (to cut a long story short).

Maeniel has every intention of enjoying a life of lupine retirement in Britain, staying on four legs, eating a few raw deer and finding a nice she-wolf to sniff bottoms with. However, the precious infant Guinevere falls into his protection, and is duly raised by him and Mrs. Wolf (somewhat in the manner of a Celtic Mowgli). This rather unorthodox family is completed by some wolf cubs (one of whom, Black Leg, is a werewolf, like his dear old Dad), a Christian Druid and a one-eyed Pagan sorceress and former slave.

While Borchardt has doubtless read and researched the classic texts of Malory, Monmouth, etc., her depiction of Guinevere suggests a childhood happily engrossed in "Marvel Comics," reading the adventures of "The League of Superheroes" and "The Fantastic Four." Then again, Stan Lee would probably get half a dozen characters out of Borchardt’s central super-heroine. Gwennie can make fire shoot out of her arm! Gwennie can see the future -- thanks to her trusty talking severed head! Gwennie’s father gives her magical Celtic knotwork tattoos all over her body: as soon as anyone draws a sword, they stand up as metal armour! Gwennie has magic shoes which transform to match whatever she’s wearing (ah, a rather prosaic one, that)! Gwennie can summon a magical boar from the dwellings of death, to leap from the fire pit and gore her enemies with its tusks! (Now, that’s more like it.) As if this list of talents wasn’t enough, she can also talk to animals (just like Eliza Thornberry, which temporarily spoilt my mental image of her). Oh, and she’s best mates with dragons, and rides them underwater (and occasionally through time), and so on....

She’s not the only one with a few tricks up her sleeve, as Arthur’s sidekick foster brother Cai is a Selkie (half seal shape-shifter), and his Saxon pregnant girlfriend’s showing a few David Blaine tendencies too...

If all of this "high fantasy" stuff is a little too "airy" for you, then Borchardt does her damnedest to "flesh out" her characters with plenty of sexual fantasy. Guinevere herself is only a child for the majority of the tale, but manages to fend off the advances of a lusty sea captain (aaaaaaar! an inevitable stereotype, matey), have her first period, get prised apart from her werewolf foster-brother and, er, climax the book with some tremendously athletic "exotic" dancing. Arthur (a good few years older) asserts his heroism early on by rescuing a country woman from an attempted gang rape. Later (driven half daft by Igraine and Merlin), he has a brief (illusory) brush with necrophilia (his nostrils are "drenched with putrefaction" by a kiss), fondly remembers some youthful homoeroticism with Cai, and has his "resolve" stiffened by Igraine flashing her bits and bobs in the general direction of his oedipal complex.... Merlin (being the big baddie of the piece) kindly restores Igraine’s youth and beauty (somewhat damaged by Guinevere) by subjecting one of his servant boys to a spot of seaside bondage and torture. Unfortunately, the poor lad gets killed, just as he’s starting to find it rather jolly.... Still, whatever the relative merits of Ms. Borchardt’s tale, she can surely claim credit for authoring the first Arthurian novel to include the phrase "huge cock ring."

For all that trampling Arthurian legend underfoot, Borchardt is by no means a bad storyteller on her own terms (I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of her previous wolf books). Her locations are beautifully described, if a little over fanciful (has she ever been to Tintagel? glass roof, my arse), and the action maintains its suspense while galloping across the pages at a cracking pace. Best of all, in the penultimate chapter, she gets something absolutely "spot-on," and produces a genuinely original and illuminating perspective on a part of the "traditional" tale of Arthur. That part is the transformation of Arthur into animal forms, the part which keeps appearing, in varying forms, in the old supernatural ballads like "Tam Lin" and "The Twa Magicians." It’s a part of the tale that each author seems to bring their own particular "spin" to. T.H. White, for example, used it as an allegory of the world political situation of his time (with worker "ants," etc.). Borchardt’s writing is usually at its most convincing when she’s applying her knowledge as a "natural," rather than "social," historian. Her depictions of Arthur "occupying" (by turn) a salmon, a snake and an eagle bring the reader alongside the hero into a series of revelatory encounters with the essences of life, death, survival and relationships through the eyes and instincts of these creatures.

This certainly bodes well for the next installment, which (despite my all-too-frequent groans and guffaws) I’ll probably read. Now that Borchardt’s established the characters firmly within her own unorthodoxy, she’ll hopefully develop the story somewhere closer to the heart, if not the form, of the essential legends. That’s certainly within her abilities, but if she doesn’t, expect to read the following somewhere in Part Two: "The tall stranger was enveloped in a long cape of darkest midnight. His helmet bore two pointed ear-like extensions that crowned the hidden muscular face beneath. 'Who are you?' I asked. 'I am Bruce, oath man to Arthur,' he replied. 'I have travelled from the far Kingdom of Gotham to find you, my lady. The people of the bat seek your aid......'"

[Stephen Hunt]