Nicola Griffith’s 2022 Spear is a stand-alone Arthurian fantasy.
The nameless girl yearns to know who she is … but her mother Elen won’t reveal her name or the name of her father. The pair hide in a cave in remote woods, far from any other habitation. Elen wields magic and owns a powerful artifact, but she lives in fear of discovery. The girl will never be belong to any community in post-Roman Britain if her mother has her way.
Their cave home is remote, but not so remote that the girl, who has grown up ranging and hunting in the woods, cannot find the nearest road and hidden, eavesdrop on the conversations of passers-by. Tales of Artos and his Companions — Lance, Cei, Bedwyr, and the others — intrigue the girl. She would be a knight, if only she could see a way.
When she finds the body of a long-dead knight, she takes his arms and armour for her own use. This proves well-timed: her woodcraft and martial skills allow her to save Companions from a bandit attack. (Though it should be noted that she obeys her mother in that she hides herself and strikes only from cover.)
The girl eventually learns her name — Peretur — and turns her back on her heart-broken mother. She sets out to join Artus’ Companions. Bound by a strong geas never to speak of her mother, Peretur chooses to conceal the fact that she is a woman; it’s easier, if sometimes romantically awkward, to let people assume she is a man.
She has a series of adventures that show off her impressive martial skills. Her heroic achievements earn her a chance to meet Artos and offer her services.
And here Peretur hits an unexpected snag. Artos for reasons he will not articulate does not trust Peretur. Unless he changes his mind, Peretur will never be a Companion.
But … perhaps some great feat can win Artos over.
Or it might bring on the doom so feared by Elen.
The kind of Arthurian fiction I like was shaped by Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Lantern Bearers. That book’s setting is a Britain that has only recently been abandoned by the Romans. It’s a believable world. Which cannot be said of any number of Arthurian tales that might as well be secondary world fantasy for all they have anything to do with British history1. I am happy to say that Spear is not one such Arthurian fantasy. Spear very firmly embraces Britain’s past. It is most certainly a historical novel.
At the same time, Spear is very much an historical fantasy. Magic abounds. In fact, magic plays a central role in the narrative and in Peretur’s personal history.
Judging by the reaction various casting and narrative choices have attracted online, certain people may well have fatal aneurisms at the thought of a woman knight among Arthur’s Companions, particularly such a gay knight. This would, of course, be in one sense tragic. In another, more reasonable sense, it would not be tragic at all, if only because it would make Twitter a bit quieter, never a bad thing,
Spear may be a novella2 but the author effortlessly delivers enough plot other authors might use seven volumes to cover and still not manage a proper ending. Griffith also does a nice job of establishing the setting via prose style: Le Guin would no doubt approve.
1: The television show Merlindeserves special comment. Its setting is a Britain that is impossible to reconcile with historical Britain. Or historical Earth, really.
2: Granted, one about as long as mass market paperback speculative fiction used to be, back in the day.