And Then I Read: MERLIN’S SISTER by J. A. Thornbury

I’ve read quite a few novels dealing with King Arthur and the legends and stories surrounding his rule and court, a subject also known as the Matter of Britain. There is no historical record of Arthur so far discovered, he may have been a real person, or not. Most versions of his story were written hundreds of years after the fact, the most important being the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136), and Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1485). Both those works are fictional, and set the stories in medieval times. This book takes place in a much earlier era, around 500 AD, not long after the Roman Empire withdrew from the country in 410 AD, a time when a possible post-Roman Briton Arthur might have lived and ruled, and a time which ties in to some archaeological research. The book also includes some of the legends and stories that fit in with this approach, but for instance, there are no knights in shining armor, and no round table. The map of Britain included uses all Roman names for places, with a list of current names beside it, but the Latin names are used throughout.

In this book, Arthur is raised in Cumbria in northwest England, the adopted son of Ector and Drusilla, with their own son Cei. When Arthur is a boy, Merlin arrives to tutor him. This is familiar from other versions, but there are a few twists. We eventually learn that Merlin is himself the king of a section of Britain, and his sister Ganieda is queen in another section. The country at this time has no overall ruler, but is divided into small kingdoms, and part of eastern Britain is held by the Saxons, invaders from Germany who war upon the Britons, trying to expand their holdings. The country needs a unified king, and at a meeting to discuss that, the familiar gambit of a sword in a stone that can only be pulled out by the true king, is engineered by Merlin, and of course Arthur is the only one who can remove it.

From that point forward, this book is different from others I’ve read, in that Arthur must first do battle with rivals for the throne, and when he accomplishes that, he and his united country must take on the Saxon invaders. The central portion of the book covers these battles and struggles, and is well written. During this time, Arthur also meets a beautiful young maiden, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) at the court of his mother at Tintagel in western Cornwall.

Some of the book also focuses on Merlin’s life and activities both with and without Arthur, bringing more of the old legends into play, and there is treachery and danger that even his ability to sometimes see the future can’t always protect him from. I’m a bit puzzled about why the book is named after his sister Ganieda, as she plays a minor role until near the end.

I have a favorite author about King Arthur, T. H. White, whose books The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King are the ones I love best on this topic. Where this book covers the same ground, it doesn’t do it as well. In areas not covered by White, this one appealed to me more. I’m not sure if I will read the rest of this trilogy (only the second book is out so far), but I may, and I can recommend this one.

Merlin’s Sister by J A Thornbury

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