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Book Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

“He will find you,” Elen said. “Beyond this cave and this valley he will scent you on the wind. And when he does he will come to claim what is his. I will never see you again. I loved you, child, loved you so much I did not name you, for naming calls. But now you are leaving, and I will give you your name. The four treasures of the Tuath are the word, which is given, the stone, which is hidden, the cup, which I have, and the spear. You are that spear. You are my Berhyddur, my spear enduring. You are Peretur. Know that I do not remove my ward, and under my geas will remain hidden, even from you. Know, too: you have broken my heart.”

SpearI have a long history of affection for the Arthurian myth (as, I imagine, many readers do), beginning with the random discovery of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Legend series at my public library when I was thirteen or fourteen. My favorite retelling is Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I loved The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro quite a bit. I love the legend’s scope; there are so many different perspectives to the tale, so many characters to follow and stories to experience.

Adding Spear to my list of  “Arthurian Legend Retellings I Love” immediately.

This short novel is a reworking of the Percival portion of the legend, with its ties to the quest for the grail. It starts with an unnamed girl who lives hidden in the forest with her mother, Elen. Elen tells her stories of the Tuath; she teaches her about the forest, too, but she is often unsettled and wild, caught in memories she doesn’t share with her daughter. Eventually the girl must leave this situation; she wants to figure out who she is and she is drawn to find a lake her mother mentions often in her stories.

Peretur, disguised as a boy, leaves her mother and heads out into the countryside, where she has many adventures that teach her about the society she lives in and draw her ever closer to Arthur’s court.

I’ve read two other novels by Nicola Griffith, Hild and Ammonite. They are each very different (historical fiction and science fiction) but one constant is how she is able to draw the reader into the story. The setting comes to life but more importantly, the characters do. Spear proves true to this characteristic. Even though it is a short book (only 167 pages) I read it slowly, savoring the way that Peretur changes and how she discovers who she is.

For me, the story resonates with other books I’ve read. Familiar, but not repetitive. I think I like Alex Harrow’s idea about it best: “If Le Guin wrote a Camelot story, I imagine it would feel like Spear: humane, intelligent, and deeply beautiful. It is a new story with very old bones, a strange place that feels like home.”

If you like the Arthurian legend, strong female characters finding their own way, magic, the queering of an old story, and exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, you’ll likely adore this one too.

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