The Guinevere Deception: King Arthur’s a hot teen. Must be Tuesday.

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten WhiteThe Guinevere Deception by Kiersten WhiteThe Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

At this point, I think the teen heartthrob version of King Arthur might be displacing the venerable monarch version. Between that BBC Merlin series, Avalon High, and the seemingly never-ending Mordred in Leather Pants novels that just keep coming and coming like my own personal karmic retribution, people just seem to have a lot of interest in Young Arthur lately. It’s probably a symptom of our youth-obsessed culture or something. I tell you, back in the good old days, young Arthur got shamed — shamed! — for his beardless face. Granted, in this case “the good old days” means Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so perhaps a bit of change is to be expected by now.

Grumpy Arthurian fanboy that I am, I sigh over the trend but also can’t stop myself from reading anything Arthur-related that comes under my nose. Which brings us to Kiersten White‘s The Guinevere Deception. In this retelling, we follow Guinevere — actually a mysterious magician and student of Merlin who has taken on the identity of the deceased princess — as she marries King Arthur and pursues magical threats against Camelot. Faux-Guinevere’s origins are the source of much mystery, as are the plans of Merlin, who seems to be playing some kind of three-dimensional chess above the heads of everyone involved.

White builds her world solidly, and breathes life into the supporting characters of her Camelot. Hints about Guinevere’s identity are well-paced and tantalizing, and dialogue and imagery are well-handled. Arthur is cast as something like a youthful version of Tennyson’s ideal king, groping for perfect regal remove but still young and insecure enough to need friendship. Lancelot, while bearing almost no resemblance to most other iterations, is an engaging new take on the figure, and the story boasts many exciting in its twists and turns. I loved some of the story’s dramatic moments and emotional beats, and really admired some of White’s attention to detail in pivotal scenes.

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten WhiteAnd yet… I also have reservations. The plot is decent, but also fairly slow getting started. The knights and ladies are lively, but fall easily into well-worn tropes and archetypes. The setting is charmingly fairy-tale, but never gives much impression of another time and place. Granted, this is a typical YA issue, but it still becomes a little grating over time. The world-building is solid, as I said above, but also at times shallow: White goes into how Arthur keeps his streets clean of human waste, but otherwise leaves the vague impression that the characters probably have electric lighting and central heating (not because they actually do, but just because that’s the level of comfort that seems implied).

Meanwhile, the revisions to Malorian canon consistently seem interesting at face value, but leave a lingering impression of unrealized potential. For example, Isolde is a lesbian in this iteration, in love with her maid. That’s a cool idea on the face of it, but making Tristan and Isolde into Brangien and Isolde is sort of like revising Romeo and Juliet so that Romeo was actually in love with Mercutio the whole time. That’s good for them, but Mercutio’s not a Capulet, so we lose most of the dramatic context in favor of a more generic forbidden love story. Hell, if you were going to make Isolde gay for someone, White, it should’ve been Tristan. Can you imagine Tristan, orphaned and grief-haunted harpist, as a woman in love with her uncle’s queen? Can you imagine the circumstances whereby King Mark’s depressed niece, of all the Cornish, chooses to face the Irish champion on a misty rock in the ocean and somehow prevails? That’s really cool! To hell with the maid. Her big event in the tradition was forgetting to guard some magic wine.

I recognize that a lot of that last paragraph is just my personal bias coming out, so I won’t go any further down that road. Overall, The Guinevere Deception is a mixed bag for me. To try to distill my thoughts, I think that the story is entertaining and well-crafted, but also a bit unambitious. It’s indisputably a good YA novel, but it needs to reach a little further to stand out from the pack of Arthurian stories.

Published in 2019. A new fantasy series set in the world of Camelot that bestselling author Christina Lauren calls “brilliant,” reimagining the Arthurian legend . . . where nothing is as magical and terrifying as a girl. Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot. To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself? *THE FIRST BOOK IN THE CAMELOT RISING TRILOGY*

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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4 comments

  1. Jana Nyman /

    Fantastic review, Tim. I especially like your commentary on the missed potential of making Tristan gay — I would read that book/series in a heartbeat!!

    By the by, have you read Alice Borchardt’s novel The Dragon Queen? It’s been ages since I read it, but I do remember it has a magically-gifted teenaged Guinevere locked in battle against Merlin. I have fond memories of it as it was the first Arthurian book I read which didn’t focus exclusively on Arthur and his men, but I’m not sure how well it would hold up to my now-older self’s scrutiny.

  2. “Can you imagine Tristan, orphaned and grief-haunted harpist, as a woman in love with her uncle’s queen? Can you imagine the circumstances whereby King Mark’s depressed niece, of all the Cornish, chooses to face the Irish champion on a misty rock in the ocean and somehow prevails? ”

    Tim, this sounds like something you need to write.

  3. Gregg L. Friedman MD /

    The Guinevere Deception is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a great novel. 5 Stars. By Gregg L. Friedman MD

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