The Cleaving by Juliet E McKenna

The Cleaving by Juliet E McKenna
The Cleaving by Juliet E McKenna. This edition Angry Robot, 2023

For those who don’t know, The Cleaving is a new retelling of the legend of British folk-hero, King Arthur. Told primarily from the point of view of Nimue, one of the more unfamiliar (and often overlooked) characters from the mythology, the narrative starts with Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s less-than-heroic dad, claiming the title of High King of Britain, and then proceeds to tell a somewhat abridged version of a story that most fantasy readers should have at least a passing familiarity with.

This one is something of an interesting addition to the ever-growing pile of Arthuriana out there. It’s a feminist retelling, so of course it’s going to get compared to the likes of Mists of Avalon, but to be honest that would be like comparing Granny Smith apples to Conference pears; while they’re both quite similar, they’re adequately different enough that most people are going to prefer one over the other.

Likewise, the setting is delightfully anachronistic. A lot of Arthurian readers these days have come to expect some sort of historical accuracy in the retelling. With this one, the author bypasses that convention completely and goes back to a more traditional approach. Instead of 5th Century post Roman Britons in period-appropriate armour, we get the classic fully-armoured knights in shiny tin cans. The people are the English, Welsh, and Scots, even though those names weren’t due to be used for a few centuries yet. It’s refreshing to have an Arthurian tale that just focuses on the story, rather than trying to get bogged down in details and then losing the essence of a good narrative.

I have to admit, I was something of a fan of McKenna’s writing before I picked this book up, and overall it didn’t disappoint. It didn’t quite grab me the same way her Green Man series has, though I suspect that’s because the story is already one I’m already familiar with. Even so, whether you’re new to Arthuriana or a long-time scholar of the once and future king, I’d definitely say give this one a read.

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