Pendragon’s Heir

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!”

St Andrew’s, Waterhill (Part 2)

Meg crouched beside a tiny headstone and traced the epitaph with her finger:

In Memory of Charlotte Smith

Born and Died on 1 August 1853

Dearly Loved

She moved on. At the end of the row, under the shadow of the laurel bushes, was a grey cross with another simple statement:

Thomas Foster

Died 3 September 1844, aged 10

A Victor

 Meg thought of her nephew Mark’s blue eyes and loud laugher and tried to imagine him lying dead like Thomas. What had he died of? Had it hurt? Oh, but they died so young then. Meg exhaled slowly, more of a sigh than a breath.

But not everyone had died young. Here was an imposing headstone in a family-sized plot.

Sacred to the Memory of George Smith, Carpenter

Born in this Village on 12 April 1822

And Died in the Same on 11 October 1885.

Mourned by his Devoted Wife and Children

 A carpenter? Meg smiled. Reminds me of Uncle Mike. I loved watching him work, watching a block of wood become something beautiful. He was amazing. It was like everything he touched became a work of art. Not just in carpentry either. In his whole life.

Wish that could be said about me. But no—my blocks of wood have become piles of shavings. Yup, shavings are all I have to show for my effort. Shavings and bloody fingers.

Meg was stiff now from squatting, but as she walked back to her bench one last headstone caught her eye.

In Loving Memory of Elizabeth Grace Mills

21 June 1802 – 14 December 1855

A Devoted Daughter, Sister, and Aunt.

“More are the children of the desolate

than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord”

Meg’s eyes ran over the verse again and again. Cold comfort. But perhaps it had not been that way for Elizabeth Mills. Meg could picture a brisk, cheery middle-aged woman who was everyone’s favourite aunt.

Back on the bench, she stretched out lengthways and closed her eyes. Somewhere in the hedgerow, a bird was talking to itself. Meg’s thoughts wended their way back to the graves.

No, graveyards were not sad places. Those headstones…. They marked the end of sadness. That is, if the cross had marked their lives as well as their graves.

The “dearly loved” Charlotte’s mother and father have her back. Little Tom Foster is probably laughing about whatever it was that killed him when he was ten. Elizabeth Mills no longer grieves that she never married. However terrible the story, it’s over.

I suppose I shall look back and laugh too.

Meg shivered and opened her eyes. It had clouded over. Running a hand through her hair, she walked back to the car, back to the shavings that she’d wanted to be a work of art, back to all her unknowns.

But I know what will happen in the end, she realised, with a glance behind her. Whatever happens in the middle, the end is always death. And then? Why, she said it every Sunday: the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

And in the meantime?

Meg slammed the car door and checked the time. 5:45 PM. Still enough time to eat and shower before going to Rebecca’s for dinner. She’d stop off at school on the way and grab that letter. Mr Davidson had been out of the office all day, so he’d be none the wiser.

Guess I’ll keep chipping away.

St Andrew’s, Waterhill (Part 1)

Meg’s hand was shaking as she turned the key and pushed open her front door. She stood in the hallway of the house she shared with a friend and let her handbag drop to the floor.

What have I done? O God, what have I done?

Not that there was any need to ask God, really. She knew what she’d done. She’d handed in her notice because after five years of teaching history to teenagers, she couldn’t take it any more. The paperwork. The crowd control. The “like I care” attitude of her class. The discouragement and blameshifting amongst the staff after an inspection that had almost placed the school in special measures. Her colleague’s cutting words.

She’d left a letter of resignation on the principal’s desk on her way out today.

And she had no idea what she’d be doing next.

The warm breeze floating through the still-open door roused her, caressing her cheek and enticing her outside. She pushed back a copper curl. “I’m going for a walk,” she announced to the empty hallway. “I may not know what I’m doing next month, or after the holidays, or,“—as she slammed the door after her—“next year, but I’m going for a walk today.”

Getting back into her car, Meg reversed down the driveway and onto the road. Ten minutes later, she was in Waterhill. She abandoned her car on a grass verge and began walking up the hill, squinting her eyes in the sun. She let out a long breath. It was quiet here, so quiet. She could almost imagine that teenagers didn’t exist. She brushed her hand across the thick leaves of the hedge on her right hand side. Don’t think, don’t think, she told herself. Just relax.

A few minutes later, Meg had reached the top of the hill, where tiny St Andrew’s stood with its grey walls covered in lichen. Meg pushed open the wooden gate. It creaked. She tiptoed down the mossy path to the bench underneath the oak tree. She liked graveyards—one of the more bizarre characteristics of history lovers, or so her sister had informed her.

But graveyards are risky places, too. In the silence, there’s nothing to drown out the voices inside you that you’re trying to hush. Meg ran a hand across her forehead.

Why couldn’t I do it? History is awesome. Why couldn’t I pass that excitement on to my students?

The jerks. If only I could have been at a nice, private school with students who care.

But isn’t it my job to make them care?

Why didn’t the planning get any easier? Everyone said it would. But I put in hours and hours more than my colleagues.

They told me to chill, that I was a perfectionist.

I know I am. But isn’t it right to try to do my job well? And I tried. I really tried.

But I’m sick of trying.

So I’m a quitter.

No! She pulled up a solitary dandelion and began savagely pulling off petals. I did it for five years. You’re not a quitter if you keep at something you hate for five years.

But now what? The shorn dandelion slipped through the fingers of her left hand.

A left hand without a ring.

Thanks for nothing, Brian.

Meg blew her nose fiercely. Why could she still not think about it without crying? It was ridiculous. She scrunched up her tissue. It was time to look at some gravestones.

(Check back later this week for the rest of the story….)