Click here to read reviewer Camden Alexander's take on Priestess of Avalon.
Priestess of Avalon tells the story of “Helena the Great,” mother of Emperor Constantine. Very little is actually known about her historically, though myths and legends abound. Written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson (who completed the book after
the former's death), it starts off the legend in the secret lands of Avalon, part of but separate from England, on the night of Helena’s birth.
Initially called Eilan, the little girl grows up without a mother, who died giving birth to her.
Upon entering training on Avalon, she comes under the authority of her aunt Ganeda, now the Lady of Avalon. Ganeda holds Eilan responsible for the death of her sister, but Eilan finds support from other priestesses and maidens in training. Throughout her childhood, certain events suggest a strange power in her, and as events unfold, it seems that destiny has great things in store for her.
The story goes on to chronicle her growing up on Avalon and the power struggles that ensue, the prophecy that she becomes involved with, the man she sees in a vision and falls in love with, her rise to Empress, heartbreak, bereavement, a trip to the Holy Land... The scope of the novel is truly epic, and the narrative takes place in many different locations across Europe, each time with rich descriptive prose giving you a real feel for that location. The characters are varied and always interesting, and into the plot are woven intricate details of Helena’s life, some of which unexpectedly turn out to be important later on.
The story is told in skillfully handled first-person narration by Helena, and
readers will feel as if they come to know the woman who is relating her life story
- and for the most part like her. Though there are strong feminist trends to the writing, it in no way demonizes men – there are good and bad, strong and weak characters of both genders throughout. While I would expect a female audience to perhaps be more receptive to this sort of book, most men should enjoy it, too (certainly this reviewer, definitely male, liked it a lot!). Set in the third century A.D, a lot of research clearly went into the history and locations used in the book, though the veracity of some small points could no doubt be argued. The historical detail helps enormously in creating the right atmosphere for the book, however, so the research did its job.
Priestess of Avalon is a highly enjoyable and quite immersive read, though not without a couple of problems.
At times it seems that in a desire to get her philosophical ideas across, the
author falls back on either too much repetition of a particular point or the story
taking a back seat to some extent. (Albeit the philosophies are of a type that most people will largely – if not entirely – agree with, the fact that they occasionally got in the way of the story remains a problem.) The final few chapters don’t seem quite right either, though that could
be because of the change of author when Mario Zimmer Bradley died. At any rate,
overall this is a very good novel and hard to put down. The historical
information is fascinating and the characters even more intriguing.