I’ve been actively reading and reviewing books for a year and a half now. In that time, my criteria for rating a book on the one to five stars scale has changed a couple of times. A few things still hold true. The book has to be exceptional and leave an indelible impression to get a five star rating from me. Three stars remains my meh-rating. It’s a book that I can objectively call a good one, something I might have even enjoyed reading, but it’s also something I can easily forget and move on.
My one star rating however, that’s changed the most. At first it was anything and everything I simply didn’t like. If the offences added up to a certain point I’d give it a one star rating no matter what redeemable qualities I’d find in it. But as I read more and actually started thinking about it, I realised there are books that aren’t even worthy of that single star, books that are, to me, beneath contempt. To compensate, I adjusted my personal rating scale and now one star is reserved to books that induce burning white rage in me.
I’ve given good ratings to books with characters I’ve hated when I enjoyed the story, and I’ve given good ratings to books with stories I’ve hated even when I loved a character or two. For me, the style matters little, but dammit, it matters.
And I’m not talking about the clunky language that in a way fits the subject and the legend, but takes a while to get used to.
Ms. Bradley set out to write a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the female perspective, and in that she succeeded. She managed to put together a logical and a somewhat coherent version of the events that put King Arthur on his throne in Camelot and brought him down from it, and she managed to tell it with female voices. Igraine, Viviane, Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, all these women claw their way from the footnotes of myth and become three dimensional people—not just characters, but people—with worries and joys of their own.
Admittedly those joys were short-lived, but that’s partly why I loved the story. It’s why I love the legend as I do all things heart-rending.
However, as wonderfully flawed all these people were with their virtues and their unbridled ambitions, none of them really had a choice in the matter. Ms. Bradley didn’t write people, women or men, who made the best of their unfortunate circumstances. She wrote people thrown about by the fates and whims of their deities. Morgaine’s last defence is that she never had a choice and that she was merely the Goddess’ instrument.
And that’s why I hate this book.
All the characters, as Ms. Bradley paints them, are passive. None are active. None make choices and then take responsibility for their actions. They’re all thrown into untenable situations where something must break and either give them that what they most wish or take it all away from them.
Igraine marries because she doesn’t have a choice. She goes to convent, because she can’t bear to face the sister who forced her hand.
Gwenhwyfar also marries, because she doesn’t have a choice. She first surrenders to her lover because she doesn’t have a choice. The only stupid choice she makes is so that the author has an excuse to make the pious lady into an adulteress without making her choose it.
Morgaine, the worst offender, chooses nothing. The closest she comes to making up her own mind is when she flees Avalon, but after that she promptly becomes the meekest of them all. She, who should be the fearsome Lady of the Lake and High Priestess of the Goddess, how can she be a vehicle of her Goddess’ will when she does nothing but allows others act around her?
Catalyst, you say? This isn’t a chemical reaction where one substance remains unchanged. People change, people make choices that change them and others around them. Unless, of course, you’re a character in The Mists of Avalon.
But times were different then and women nothing but chattel, you say? There’s difference in being victimised and being a victim. All Morgaine and the others had to do to win me over, was not to see themselves as victims. All they had to do was to endure what was thrown at them and choose to make the best of it. All they had to do was to choose.
Only Morgause and Viviane come close to choosing anything, and how are their choices rewarded? Why of course, they are the great villainesses whose actions lead to a family tragedy after a family tragedy. Their actions bring an end to all those things they love and they don’t live to see the aftermath or acknowledge their responsibility.
Telling a story from the female perspective doesn’t make it feminist; writing capable women doing things, being active, and making choices does. This book is something worse; it’s a pretender.
There are many things I appreciate in this book, one thing I don’t is how it all was told. That matters. Dammit.
Series: Avalon #1
Chronological order #7
Publisher: Del Rey
Published: 2000 (orig. 1983)