Danika reviews Spear by Nicola Griffith

the cover of Spear by Nicola Griffith

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The first book I read by Nicola Griffith was Hild, a 560 page (for the first book in the trilogy) meticulously-researched historical fiction title that left me feeling like I was wandering through a dense fog of unfamiliar names and terms–and yet, it was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down. So although this is a standalone novella, I went in feeling a little bit intimidated.

That instinct wasn’t wrong: I was immediately confronted with Welsh people and place names I’ve never seen before, as well as vocabulary I’m not familiar with. This is a retelling of the Arthur legends, so if you’re more familiar with these stories (or with Welsh words!), you’ll probably be less lost than I was in that first chapter.

Still, I knew that I would be rewarded for hanging with it, and I definitely was. Reading Griffith’s books feels like an intellectual expansion for me: it’s clear how carefully she considers her words and how deeply the setting is researched. While that can feel like a barrier to get into it, it also means that there is so much depth and richness to the story, which more than makes up for me stumbling through the first chapter or so.

This follows an unnamed (at least, at first) main character raised in isolation, closely connected to nature, who disguises herself as a man and sets off to become a knight of King Artos’s court. This is a lofty goal for a girl in scavenged armor riding a bony horse, but she knows it’s her destiny. While she is assumed to be a man by most people she meets and she does sleep with women (who know she’s a woman), at first, this isn’t a major part of the story–but it only gets more queer as it goes.

She’s a fascinating character who has a synergistic relationship with nature: she has reflexes and senses that are beyond what humans are normally capable of because of it, which is what allows her to slowly make her way closer to the possibility of being one of the chosen few knights of Artos.

While I enjoyed the whole book, I thought the section that takes place at King Artos’s court is the most interesting. There, we learn about (spoiler) the Lancelot character’s relationship with both the Guinevere and Arthur characters. (end spoiler) Our main character also begins to question deeply for the first time her destiny, her upbringing, and her instincts. She enters this space feeling confident in herself, but she begins to wonder if she should feel ashamed, if she is somehow “unclean”. (Which not really about homophobia, aside from the metaphor.) There’s also an enthralling love story with a woman intertwined with her destiny.

This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that made me gasp out loud as I read it. I’m not usually an expressive reader, so that was a surprise. This novella is precisely plotted, both building up an expansive world and mythology while moving through a lean story that deserves its own spot among the most renowned Arthur legends. It feels timeless, but also has a depth that makes these people feel real and relatable.

I enjoyed reading the afterword, where the author both lays out her substantial research into the setting while also delighting in being able to create a mishmash of many different Arthur stories–with her own queer twist, of course. She describes how this is the great tradition of Arthur stories: they are all essentially fan fiction, remixing the versions that came before. Though Griffith borrows elements from many other stories, this narrative stands alone, feeling cohesive and layered, even if you (like me) don’t recognize the references or inspirations. (Oh, and I didn’t even mention the handful of gorgeous illustrations throughout!)

This is a small book that packs a big punch, and I was surprised how moved I was by the love story, considering that romance didn’t play much of a role for the first section of the book. I am definitely now on board for anything Griffith writes, and I can’t wait to explore her backlist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just read her Writer’s Manifesto, and I’ll be off fanning my face for a bit.

Marthese reviews Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

“Camille reminded herself that they had a lot of indoctrination to undo”

Not Your Average Love Spell is a not-so-average book that I discovered thanks to Netgalley, for which I am grateful. From the start, this book was one adventure after another, yet it didn’t feel rushed and was well-paced. Not Your Average Love Spell stars four main characters: Sydney – a knight, Camille – a master researcher, Rowena the Hawk – a witch and Ember – a homunculus.

This fantasy book is set in a world where the knights of the flame have been trying to capture all witches after the Witch Wars, which set people against witches. However, a new threat emerges, and Sir Robert instructs Major Sydney to make conduct with the Hawk to transport their troops in order to fight the Kells, who are dangerous because they believe other people are dreams. Sydney has Camille’s help as a master researcher. The two soon develop a fling. However, after the two are separated is when things get even more interesting.

Rowena, known as the Hawk, is a benevolent but grumpy and reclusive witch. She lives on top of a mountain with Ember, who she created and Husks. Ember is a highly energetic, curious and fiery woman who wants to go out and explore, though misses Rowena, and eventually has a ‘Rowena was right’ stage, like most youth when they grow up.

These four characters get tangled up together in all kinds of ways. Sydney and Rowena are rivals who reluctantly work together, sometimes admire each other, and for certain are too stubbornly similar to each other. Sydney and Camille were cute together, but something seemed off, and this was more evident once they found new partners that suited them better. I won’t give other dynamics away, but I liked the fact that even frenemies or new friends got time to put their heads together. I found this refreshing, because not a lot of books explore relationships in this way.

There was enough time for good character development. Characters learn to accept hard truths, to challenge themselves and their beliefs, to change their behaviours, and so on. The characters, and not just the couples, encourage each other directly and indirectly to be better. This was such a healthy way to portray relationships. This depth of characters is also shown by the fact that at first, I disliked the characters a bit (except perhaps Ember), yet as the characters developed, I couldn’t help but root for them and support them. All characters are flawed in realistic manners, such as their fears, snapping and shutting out others, and overcompensating. None of them come out as perfect from the start. The different forms of femininity and diversity of characters is definitely a plus too.

The adventures, as mentioned above, were plentiful. There are pirates and warriors, a yeti, giant spiders, a possible dragon, lizard people, and in general, a lot of tough-headed knights. The plot was definitely interesting, with a lot of twists and turns. It took me a while to realize that the Kells-plot was not concluded, but the whole overall plot was so great that I didn’t mind.

The writing was seasoned with beautiful writing and truths. The cover was lovely too! It was what first draw me to read the plot of the book so I’m grateful for that. The title is an overall hint to the character development and plot: it’s not average.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of fantasy and to those that want characters to be challenged to deconstruct what they know and learn how to live together. It’s a beautiful book!