Lancelot du Lethe by J. Robert King is the second book featuring Kingís unique take on the Arthurian legends. Gone are the various pantheons of gods, as this book is mostly about the land of Britain itself, its ties with the Fey folk, and how Christianity is pushing everything aside. King plays with the legends even as he includes many things that we all know and love about them. This is a better book than the first (Mad Merlin), and it doesnít contain any of the problems the first book had. It does, however, have a couple of its own.
Arthur and Camelot have won a large battle versus the Saxon pantheon of gods and its disciples. However, in doing so, he has removed troops from the land of Benwick across the Channel. King Ban of Benwick has sent his best troops to help defend Camelot in its time of need. But this allows the forces of Claudas to take over Benwick, raping and pillaging and forcing the king, his wife, and their newborn son, Lancelot, to flee across the water. Deprived of a father and mother (one dead and one gone insane with grief), Lancelot is raised by Brigid, a woman of many guises, and trained by Mars Smetrius to be the greatest warrior of them all. He finally journeys forth to join Arthur and the Round Table after growing up eighteen years in the span of only two in the real world.
But Lancelot brings more than a good sword arm to Camelot. Merlin, when making the journey to ask for troops to defend Camelot, had stopped in Benwick to make his request. There, he saw the newborn infant and saw a dark destiny for him. He sees nothing but trouble when Lancelot finally makes it to Camelot, and heís determined to prevent it. But he didnít see it all. Lancelot has more of a destiny than even Merlin is aware of. Arthur, Guinevere, and he are all doomed to form a vicious triangle. No matter what choices they make, a land is doomed to die. But is it the Christian land of Britain? Or the magical land of the Fey? Whatever happens, nothing but sorrow will come of it.
As good as Mad Merlin was, this book is just much richer. Anybody familiar with the Arthurian legends knows of the ill-fated love between Guinevere and Lancelot, and how the betrayal of Arthur affects Camelot and everything around it. While sticking to the basics of the legend, King adds so much to the tapestry that it reads like a new tale. While Mad Merlin added the war between the gods, Lancelot du Lethe adds a great deal of detail to the land of the Fey and the magical world that lies beneath and between the real world of man. Guinevere is of this land, and while she is married to Arthur in order to bring peace and stability to the land, she is drawn to Lancelot and his otherworldliness. He harbours a secret of his own that draws her to him even more, a secret that even he doesnít know. They are fated to be lovers, and this adds the main conflict to the story. The choices that King has the characters make are hard choices, and there are always consequences to them. He doesnít give them an easy way out like some authors do.
Guinevere is more developed in this book than in the last one. That was about Arthur and Merlin, and Guinevere was mainly a means to an end, a character who served a purpose and not a whole lot more. Here, though, she comes into her own. She is a kind and good queen, but she is a woman living in a sexless marriage because if she gives in to Arthur, everything will be destroyed. When Lancelot shows up, she is inexplicably drawn to him. Sure, heís the most beautiful man in the land, but thereís something more to it. Their romance is tragic, even more tragic than in many tellings of the legends. Lancelot is a good man as well, and he knows what he feels will hurt Arthur. He continues to try and deny his emotions but he feels like he must follow his heart. King masterfully tells the story of how they dance around each other and their feelings, and Arthurís feelings as well, until ultimately something has to give. These are all good people, and the reader feels the tragedy even more because of that.
Other characters are not so well-drawn, as they interact with these three only peripherally. I sometimes questioned the choices King made in this. Morgan le Fay and her son Mordred donít really come across very well. Morgan has plans for Lancelot, but these plans are foiled more out of authorial fiat than by anything Lancelot actually does. She does have a hand in the tragic ending, much like in the legends, but she plays a relatively minor role overall. This is a shame because sheís in the book a lot, always lurking in the background and behind Mordredís plans. Mordred also doesnít come across as very interesting, and if King wasnít keeping to the basics of the legend, I would have liked to have seen a more interesting villain. As it is, his character is given more weight by his place in the stories that King is using than by King himself. And Merlin only makes a couple of token appearances. His first appearance is superfluous, and his second only provides a story element before he goes back to a wonderful life with his lady love. I think it would have been a better book either without him, or with him given a meatier part in the story.
Again, King does a wonderful job with the tools he is given and extrapolates very well, giving the story a fresh feel even as the reader knows the basics of what is going to happen. The prose is wonderful, with rich descriptions and vivid scenes. The interesting thing is how he extends the tales, and King delivers in spades. Sure, there are familiar items: other knights (Galahad, Gawain), the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. However, the rich descriptions of the fairy world, the way King uses the fairies to supplement the intrigue in the real world, and the tragic elements King adds to the romance all do their jobs nicely. Even when you know whatís going to happen, you really donít. Thatís the perfect way to retell a legend.
There is another minor problem with the book: its almost anecdotal feel. It almost seems like a set of stories with an overarching theme, almost like a ďStories of King Arthur and the Round TableĒ with tales mainly centering on Lancelot. While this may make it reminiscent of the old legends, I found it distracting in a 450-page book thatís not really a short story book. This problem is alleviated later on once events start rolling to their inevitable conclusion. But at first, it is a problem.
I will say that the ending is very fitting, though. King really outdoes his first book there. Itís tragic but holds a glimmer of hope. It also provides the perfect bookend to the first book. Together, they make a wonderful visit to the land of Arthur, taking you back to the old days of jousts, chivalry, warriors in plate armour, and romance. I had a great time on my trip.