Knights. Immortals. Treason. Secrets. Welcome to the world of Pendragon’s Heir, Suzannah Rowntree’s novel set in Arthurian Britain.
Eighteen-year-old Blanche, living in Victorian England, discovers that she belongs to another world, and that her parents are none other than Arthur and Guinevere of ancient Britain. She was sent away as a child for her own safety, but now it’s time for her to go back to Logres. Blanche is reluctant to leave the only life she’s known, but when her life is once again under threat, she has no choice. But Logres is full of problems of its own, not least of which is the question of whether Blanche is even Arthur’s heir at all.
I gorged Pendragon’s Heir over a couple of days and had a fine time of it. Suzannah’s prose is clear and strong. Her writing generally wasn’t at that soaring level that makes one stop and take note of a finely-crafted sentence or expression, but if it wasn’t brilliant enough to notice, it was certainly brilliant enough not to notice, and that is praise enough. It didn’t get in the way of her story. It didn’t undermine her story. It simply allowed me to get caught up in her story.
And, yes, the story is gripping, with a twist or two that took me completely by surprise. I must mention two things in particular that I think Suzannah does well. One was to have a female character who was strong while remaining feminine, and who plays a crucial part in the happenings without having to join in the battles or act like a man. I don’t think I really noticed this element until I read Suzannah’s remarks on this, but it’s well done indeed. The other was to have a romance that was delightfully present in the story without predominating it, and, most especially, that wasn’t mushy. Or soppy. Or sentimental. It was strong and hard and real and understated.
Although it’s a gripping story, Pendragon’s Heir does slow down a bit too much in the middle—or perhaps, it simply gives an undue proportion of time to the Grail quest. This leads me on to the fact that I did found a few things puzzling—the anti-climax (and apparent lack of surprise at the anti-climax) after the quest for the Holy Grail was one. The most noteworthy thing that I found puzzling was the secret that the back cover of the book describes Blanche as discovering: I managed to get to the end of the book and still be unsure as to what that secret was. Now, I’m far from being a genius, but I’m a book lover and an English graduate, and if the back cover of a novel tells me that there’s a secret, and by the end of the book I’m still hazy about what that secret is, I think there’s a problem somewhere—and not with me. On reflection, I think I know what is being referred to, but if it’s what I think it is, some of the description on the back could do with being reworded.
On the whole, however, Pendragon’s Heir is a truly good story, well told. Like The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s so much to learn from it, yet doesn’t come across as trite or preachy because it lets the reader see and feel virtue in action rather than be lectured about it. Here is courage and honour—and not courage and honour practised by characters who seem too good to be true, but by flawed characters like you and me. I was struck by the willingness to die—recklessly, with abandon, and even with a smile—for what one holds dear. I came across Dorothy Sayer’s poem “Desdichado” on Rabbit Room shortly after reading Pendragon’s Heir, and the final lines capture the spirit that I found in the novel wonderfully well:
“Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking . . . why, how small a thing is death!”