- The Cleaving
Author: Juliet E Mckenna
Publisher: Angry Robot
- ISBN: 9781915202222
- Published: April 2023
- Pages: 368
- Format reviewed: Paperback
- Review date: 17/04/2023
- Language: English
I really enjoy a retelling of the Arthurian Legend, which is a good thing as I have read a fair few. Each author tackles the story in a unique way looking to put their own spin on a well-known tale. Do you follow the classic beats making the likes of Morgana the villain? Perhaps it is Merlin's fault or Lancelot, even King Arthur? They have all been at fault at one point. Juliet E McKenna retells the legend via four female characters, not always at the centre of events, often pushed to one side by their male counterparts, but in The Cleaving their story will be told, and their roles revealed.
They say behind every great man stands a great woman, but in the courts of King Uther and King Arthur the woman are often made to be seen and not heard. The great Queen Ygraine, tricked and forced into marriage to Uther, bearing a son she never wanted. Morgana, the trusted aid, and sister to Arthur until she is needed no more. Guinevere, another Queen, ignored once it seems she cannot bear children. And another woman, Nimue, one of the hidden people who lives for centuries. She protects the woman of Camelot from harm and does what she can to prevent the meddling of Merlin.
It is too easy to concentrate on the major beats of any legend and forget about some of the smaller characters. The Sword in the Stone, The Lady in the Lake, The Knights of the Round Table. So many compelling and longstanding images to choose from, but how did Arthur get there? With the help of Merlin and a willingness to do what it takes to bring peace to England. Even if this means deceit, magic, or manipulation. Often those harmed are the women, the liked of Ygraine, Morgana and Guinevere all forced into marriages by men.
McKenna has done a fantastic job of reframing the Arthurian Legend in a new way by concentrating on the female characters. It does not give them the power they never received in the original tales, but it does show the impact they had, even from the shadows. The Knights of the Round Table are not painted with quite the rosy glow as films from the golden age of Hollywood would have us believe. This was still a feudal society where women were used as bargain chips to benefit the Kings. McKenna has a way of making the reader feel the insult, pain, and impotence of the female characters as they are forced against their will. Things are made even sadder when the woman often choose to remain in their predicament for the benefit of the greater good.
The one character who stands apart from the royal woman is Nimue and she is key to the story working. Nimue has hidden in the court of Kings for centuries as a chambermaid for the Queens. She hides her magic and only uses it as a last resort, therefore, when Merlin comes out of the shadows and shows the world his sorcery, it places Nimue in a tricky situation. Her first loyalty is to her people, then her Queens. Nimue will find herself on the periphery of all the major events, gently guiding events as best as she can. We see the secret role that Nimue and the other woman played, but not always for the best.
Cleaving is a fantastic retelling of a story that many will know well. McKenna is sure to mark all the major events, but they are sometimes told from afar or the shadows. Nimue’s magic is key to allowing this. The book is pacy and is full of drama. It can be an uncomfortable read in places but is also empowering and entertaining. I would place it up there with the best modern interpretations of the Arthurian Legend, a refreshing retelling that would work for new readers to the myth, but also those that know the stories well.
Written on 17th April 2023 by Sam Tyler .