Review – Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch No.3) – Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2015

Breq once planned to destroy her empress, Anaander Mianaai, but now that the many facets of Mianaai are busy destroying each other, it falls to Breq to keep what peace she can. She has made friends and allies on Athoek Station, and on the planet below – if she can protect them from the violent turmoil exploding elsewhere in the empire, she will do whatever it takes. In this, she has a tentative alliance with the space station’s AI, but as the last fragment of an AI herself, Breq’s motives are called into question on all sides. When it comes right down to it, what exactly is she?

This conclusion to Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which began with Ancillary Justice, cannot be read independently and I suspect I would have got more out of it if the other two books had been fresher in my mind – as it was some aspects of the plot, such as Seivarden and Ekalu’s everything, were of no interest to me. Having the entire trilogy narrated from Breq’s semi-omnipotent perspective allows for interesting insights, but it does the human secondary characters no favours, drawing them in such broad strokes that their interactions with each other lack vitality and almost infantilising them at times. This contrasts sharply against the non-human characters, who stand on much stronger ground and have many fantastic moments together. I loved Leckie’s exploration of articial intelligences, and towards the end the book pulled together very satisfyingly, though there are plenty of loose ends for her to come back to if she wants to write another series in this universe. I, for one, vote for more Presger.

Review – Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows No.1) – Kim Harrison

Eos, 2004

When a genetically engineered virus kills off a quarter of the human race, the truth comes out: humanity is only the tip of the iceberg. Now everything that once lived in the shadows, from pixies to witches to vampires, is out in the open and that means a brave new world of bureaucracy. Rachel Morgan is a witch and an IS runner, tasked with apprehending the ‘Inderlanders’ who break the law. Unpopular with her boss, she’s hit a career dead end and decides to go freelance. The only problem with that is, IS runners who leave the department tend to meet literal dead ends. She’ll need a lot of leverage, and even more luck, just to make it through the week – and that’s if her terrifying new housemate doesn’t get her first.

This is the kind of fast-paced, sarcastic urban fantasy that I like. Rachel’s chaotic yet capable style made her a fun protagonist and the dysfunctional family vibe she developed with her housemates was a delight. The world-building was engaging and nuanced, even though the writing was occasionally clunky (‘Oriental’, for instance, is not a good word for describing a person’s looks). Being the first in the Hollows series, Dead Witch Walking sets more plot points up than it resolves, but it’s an interesting set-up. The story continues with The Good, the Bad and the Undead.

Review – The Vanishing Throne

The Vanishing Throne (The Falconer No.2) – Elizabeth May

Gollancz, 2015

Alieana thought the end of the world would be simple: either she would save the rest of the humanity from the hordes of murderous fae crossing over from their realm into Scotland, or she would die trying. But she did not die, and humanity was not saved. Held captive by her enemy Lonnrach in the dying fae realm, she is tortured for information that he believes will save his people – information Alieana doesn’t think she has. When she finally escapes, it is into the wreck of a world upon which the monsters of fairy tales have been unleashed. The people she loves most have changed, and she’s no longer sure who to trust. To stand a chance at turning the tide, she will have to come into her own as a Falconer. If she can survive long enough.

This series began with The Falconer, which followed a classic ‘secret superhero’ pattern with Alieana fighting monsters by night and keeping up appearances as an eccentric debutante by day. The Vanishing Throne is a complete change of pace from the word go, turning Scotland into a dystopian wasteland, and it took me a while to get into the story from this radically different angle. I am not a huge fan of dystopias or of creatures so powerful they cannot be fought by ordinary people, which May’s fae certainly are. But Alieana. I loved her the first time around and I loved her even more in this, especially her interactions with Aithinne. I am tired of stories that tell angry women to be gentler, or hurt women to be more forgiving, and May handles issues of guilt and betrayal with very satisfying skill. The Vanishing Throne was an invigorating breath of fresh air, and when the third Falconer book comes out in 2017, I’ll definitely be reading it.

Return of the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Previously: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Welcome back to my Star Wars rewatch, and May the Fourth be with you! This time I’m revisiting the second prequel movie, Attack of the Clones, which begins with fracture lines forming in the Republic. Led by the charismatic ex-Jedi Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee, which explains why people do what he wants), thousands of systems are threatening to separate from the Galactic Senate. In a time of such unrest, the resources of the Republic’s traditional peacekeepers – the Jedi – are strained thin and the Senate is about to vote on the creation of an official armed force.

Senator Amidala, once queen of Naboo, is in adamant opposition to such a decision and comes to Coruscant to give her say, but upon arrival her spacecraft explodes and the handmaiden who was acting as her decoy is assassinated. The Jedi believe the attack originated with ‘disgruntled spice miners’ from her own planet, but Amidala (whom I shall refer to as Padme from now on, as Amidala is more like a title) doesn’t buy that for a second. She thinks Count Dooku is responsible. Gently, patronizingly, the Jedi tell her that as a former Jedi, Dooku could never ever be involved in murder. Inciting a massive political movement that could reshape the galaxy just shows how idealistic he is. Adding a further layer of insult, they take up Chancellor Palpatine’s suggestion to impose bodyguards on Padme against her will. To forestall further protests on her part, Palpatine arranges the return of two old friends – Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan, Anakin Skywalker.

It’s been ten years since Naboo was freed from the Trade Federation’s blockade and Anakin has grown from a sulkily precocious child to a sulkily gorgeous nineteen-year-old. His old crush on Padme hasn’t gone anywhere and Obi-Wan is torn between amusement and mild disapproval about it. Anakin keeps fidgetting with his clothes, but he should be more worried about his hair, which is in the traditional, hideously embarrassing cut Jedi inflict on their apprentices. Not that Padme cares. She’s warmly pleased to see Obi-Wan and openly perplexed by this version of Anakin, who now towers over her and makes awkward remarks about how beautiful she is. Her mental image of him as a sort of adorably spiky stray kitten is clearly shaken.

Jar-Jar Binks is also in this scene. I’m not sure why anybody let him be an official representative of anything, but apparently he is. I’d like to note that R2-D2 is another member of Padme’s entourage – as Tumblr reminded me a while ago, he was always Padme’s droid, not Anakin’s.

Rewatching this, Anakin is such an embarrassing teenager. His hair is nothing in comparison to what COMES OUT OF HIS MOUTH. He hasn’t seen Padme in ten years, but uses her private name in a public context; contradicts his Master by promising to investigate the assassination attempts instead of just guarding Padme, and stares broodingly the whole time. Or maybe that’s just how his eyes function. Obi-Wan is increasingly exasperated as he tries to reassert his authority, and everyone else just looks really awkward as the public dressing-down goes on. Padme tries to smooth things over and leaves the room as soon as she can.

She may resent the increased security, but she needs it. Elsewhere in Coruscant, the bounty hunter Zam Wesell is meeting her partner to explain Padme’s continued survival. Zam Wesell is one of the minor Star Wars characters that I love, not because they do anything particularly amazing but because they simply exude cool. Also, she’s a girl, and this franchise doesn’t have nearly enough of those. She gets a second chance at the assassination when her partner hands over a pair of toxic worm-like creatures in a vial. She sends them to Padme’s building in a drone, which cuts right through the window and releases the worms onto Padme’s sleeping body. Anakin and Obi-Wan are too busy arguing over whether politicians can be trusted to notice.

At the last minute, Anakin senses something is wrong and leaps into her room to sever the worms right over her face. Obi-Wan sees the drone and jumps through the window to catch it – in mid-air. Not unexpectedly, it flies off with him and Anakin runs to get a craft so he can catch up. Are they as ridiculous as each other? Yes. Yes they are.

The denizens of Coruscant are just as dismayed by the antics of Team Reckless as I am, and Zam Wesell cannot believe how badly her night is going. Anakin does some clever flying to catch Obi-Wan before he falls to a painful death, and some very stupid flying to catch up to Zam, and I’m mostly admiring the Coruscant cityscape as this point because it’s just really gorgeous. Crash-landing on a busy street, Zam flees into a nightclub. Obi-Wan lures her out by looking unsuspecting at the bar (and advising his fellow patrons to reconsider their life choices), then he cuts off her ARM and hauls her outside for questioning. It doesn’t take long. She collapses, a poisoned dart in her throat. Her partner doesn’t like loose ends.

During this sequence Obi-Wan remarks irritably that Anakin is going to be the death of him and Anakin responds by saying that Obi-Wan is ‘the closest thing [he has] to a father’, but I read their dynamic as much more fraternal. Obi-Wan is in a position of authority over Anakin, certainly, but he comes across more like an exasperated older brother, accustomed to his rules being flouted, than a parental figure accustomed to respect. And while he complains about Anakin’s attitude all the time, he’s hardly a stable and responsible role model.

Anyway. Taking their account to the Jedi Council, they get approval to investigate further. Showing their typical cluelessness about all things emotional, Yoda and Windu arrange for Obi-Wan to do the investigating and for Anakin to guard the young, attractive Senator he has history with. He gets a paternal pep talk from Palpatine, who assures him of his guaranteed future greatness, and Obi-Wan’s concerns get completely ignored. You can absolutely see how Anakin got to be the way he is from these scenes.

Padme, immensely fed up about being sent home to Naboo, makes the inexplicable decision to place her vote in Jar-Jar’s hands. WHY. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT, PADME. She passive-aggressively packs while Anakin vents his own frustrations. Hayden Christensen does a fantastic job in this, because what Padme is seeing is a handsome, impatient boy wanting more independence, but there’s danger underneath, a vicious edge to his complaints. Padme’s mental dissonance between the little boy she promised to remember and the young man who has come back to her becomes uncomfortable when Anakin’s intensity turns on her. They leave Coruscant together with R2-D2, disguised as refugees.

Having seen them off, Obi-Wan goes to visit an old friend who is running the intergalactic version of a greasy spoon and who has a suspiciously excellent knowledge of weaponry. I love this exploration of Coruscant’s day-to-day living, from glimmering towers to scrappy corners. Also, the fact Obi-Wan has friends! I suspect most Jedi do not have enough of those. Obi-Wan shows Dex the dart that killed Zam Wesell and is told it comes from Kamino, a planet known for its state-of-the-art cloning facilities.  Attempting to locate Kamino in the Jedi records, Obi-Wan is told by the very snippy archivist that it does not exist. He goes to Yoda for a second opinion, who in turn hands the question over to a roomful of adorable little Padawans. The consensus is simple: the planet is there all right, but somebody doesn’t want it found. Yoda sends Obi-Wan to find out why.

Meanwhile, Padme and Anakin are drifting into dangerous waters with a debate on the nature of love; more precisely, whether Jedi are allowed to love or not. Anakin argues that he’s supposed to care about everybody, it is attachment that is forbidden – a rule that is destined for failure, incidentally, people being people. He’s completely unsubtle about his feelings for Padme, and she doesn’t know quite what to think about that. She has her own doubts about her place in the world, how she should best serve her people now that her time as queen is over, and Anakin’s complete faith in her brilliance is obviously reassuring – especially as she’s unable to put that brilliance to any use, dragged away from the debate in the Senate to hide in retreat on Naboo.

Meanwhile, on the ocean planet of Kamino, Obi-Wan’s investigations are given an unexpected in when the cloners mistake him for the representative of a different Jedi – a Master Sifo-Dyas, nearly a decade dead, who secretly commissioned the creation of a clone army on behalf of the Republic. With their accelerated growth and advanced training program, the clones are nearly ready for service. They are the perfect soldiers: capable of creativity and limited independence, but conditioned for perfect obedience. Slavery from conception. IT IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF AWFUL. And yet also kind of fascinating? Like, Obi-Wan is not horrified. He doesn’t exactly approve, but this falls within the boundaries of his understanding as a thing that can and does happen – from the way the Kaminoans describe their procedures, there are other cloners out there, though they might not work on such a large scale – and his focus remains on the mission.

The clones are based on the template of a bounty hunter, Jango Fett, who asked in return for one unaltered clone to raise as his son. Jango and little Boba are deeply suspicious of Obi-Wan and his questions. Obi-Wan has his suspicions confirmed when he recognises Fett’s armour. This is the bounty hunter who killed Zam Wesell.

The safe house on Naboo looks more like a luxury hotel for honeymoon romance. On their very first day, a seemingly innocuous conversation about the landscape leads to kissing on the balcony and while Padme tries to stamp down the sparks of sexual attraction flaring up between them, absolutely everything is against her. Anakin loves her and he loves Naboo and he’s never been more playful, more easy to get close to. But even as they flirt in circles around each other, there’s something more serious under the surface. Padme might be fed up with the ponderous political system of the Republic, but she trusts in the foundations. Anakin doesn’t. Maybe it’s rooted in his childhood as a slave, or in the gentle dictatorship of the Jedi Order, but he doesn’t have the patience for democratic process. He wants a leader with more power, someone who will make the hard decisions and make the squabbling rabble of the Senate do what they’re told.

The sexual tension comes to a head one evening when Anakin pours out his longing and desperation and Padme admits that yes, she feels it too – but what are they supposed to do with those feelings? Her life is committed to politics, his to the Jedi Order, and their paths don’t align anywhere. The only option would be to keep their relationship a secret, and they both see how corrosive a lie that would be.

Relaying his discoveries to Yoda and Mace Windu, Obi-Wan gets the go-ahead to capture Jango Fett. Only that’s not an easy ask. The Fetts are a flawless father-son team: Jango armed and in the air, Boba firing the cannons on the family spaceship. Is it wrong that I find this quite adorable? Obi-Wan is thrown off the side of the landing platform, dangling over Kamino’s wild seas. Jango leaves him for dead. Obi-Wan hauls himself back to his own ship and pursues them towards the planet Geonosis. He manages to survive another tangle with their vicious ingenuity, faking his own demise a second time, and lands on the planet surface undetected. Inside the hive-like buildings he sees another army in the making, a production line of battle-droids ready for war. The Separatists are meeting with Count Dooku to decide on their next move and, surprise surprise, the Trade Federation are right in the thick of it, sour-grapesing about how much they want Padme dead.

I am aware that sour-grapesing is not a word, but it should be.

On Naboo, Anakin’s misery is twofold. He’s tormented by dreams about his mother Shmi and a conviction she’s in pain. When he shares his fear with Padme, she insists on going with him to Tattooine to find out for sure. That’s mostly for Anakin’s benefit, but Shmi was once very kind to a fourteen-year-old queen. Arriving on Tattooine, they find the once-successful Watto is now reduced to doing his own grunt-work. It’s odd seeing Anakin interact with his former owner; there’s resentment, but also a grudging sort of affection. Anakin didn’t have many people in his life as a child, after all. Shmi is no longer in Watto’s possession – she was sold to a moisture farmer called Lars who freed and married her, but she’s not with him either. Tusken Raiders took her, and despite the best efforts of her new family, rescue seems hopeless. But Anakin doesn’t accept that. He takes a speeder and goes after her himself. The light turns red; the music is the same as for Darth Maul’s duel. Failure is not an option.

He finds Shmi. She is savagely bound, barely hanging on after weeks of torture, and she dies there in his arms. Afterwards, it is not a Jedi who cuts his way through the camp. It is a living inferno of grief, guilt and rage. By the time he returns to the Skywalker farm with his mother’s body draped over the speeder, not a single Raider is left alive. Anakin confesses as much to Padme in a fury of despair.

There are several important facts to remember when analysing this scene: the fact that the Raiders have killed nearly everyone who tried to rescue Shmi (Padme is fully aware of that), the long-standing enmity between the Raiders and the rest of Tattooine’s population (perhaps something to do with colonisation? It’s never explained in the movies but probably there’s material in the expanded universe), and the incredibly low expectations Padme has of Tattooine’s local justice, formed on her first visit and compounded now. But most importantly, she loves Anakin and she still sees him as needing protection. So when he tells her that he committed a massacre, that he has killed children, she swallows down her horror and goes to comfort him.

Just in case you thought this was a movie for little kids? IT IS NOT.

It is at this point, when Anakin is too numb to give a damn about anyone, that Obi-Wan runs into trouble on Geonosis. He gets a message out before he’s captured, but help will not come from Coruscant in time. Padme is determined that her small team – herself, Anakin, R2-D2 and a newly reclaimed C3-PO – should go to the rescue. Meanwhile, as Obi-Wan’s message is relayed to Jedi and Senate alike, it is agreed that the urgent threat of the Separatist movement requires dramatic action. To approve the deployment of the clones, the Chancellor needs emergency powers. And to get those, a Senator has to make the proposal.

Padme would never do it. But Jar-Jar Binks is listening, and he’s already seen the Trade Federation’s droids in action once. It hardly takes any pressure at all for him to make the decision, and once the proposal is made, it rapidly gains support.

Dooku makes an effort to recruit Obi-Wan onto his side, telling him that the Republic is already under the control of a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. Obi-Wan somehow resists Christopher Lee’s resonant tones, and gets casually handed over public execution in a gladiatorial arena. Padme’s hope is to negotiate a peaceful settlement is also a bust; she and Anakin survive an up close and personal experience of the battle droid foundries – an encounter, I may add, Padme only survives thanks to R2’s quick action, proving more than ever that he is HER droid – only to be imprisoned and sent out into the arena with a very unimpressed Obi-Wan. When you’re about to be shredded for popular entertainment, it makes you focus on the important things. Padme tells Anakin that she loves him, and they face near-certain death together.

Fortunately, Padme doesn’t rely solely on her diplomatic prowess when going into life-threatening situations. Using a lock-pick, she slips her chains while Anakin swings astride one of the creatures sent to kill them. Obi-Wan does a lot of running. Jango thinks this is A-OK viewing for his young son, and Boba is loving it.

Dooku has a distant sort of admiration for his prisoners’ survival skills, but eventually loses patience. Droidekas roll out into the arena, ready to finish off the trio; and that is when Mace Windu walks out onto the balcony behind Dooku. He’s always exuded awesome, but now he gets to DO awesome. Lightsabers flare to life all around the arena. The Jedi have come to rescue their own. They are literally taking on an army and I get really emotional about impossibly unwise acts of courage, this is catnip to me. Padme and Anakin prove an unexpectedly excellent fighting duo, her with a blaster, him with a borrowed lightsaber. Jango Fett tries to set Mace Windu on fire, and Windu cuts off his head. (In front of Boba. Another child witnessing their beloved solo parent’s demise; parallels much?) The Jedi prove they are worthy of their reputation, cutting down battle droids in swathes.

They are amazing. But it comes down to numbers – they are simply too badly outmatched. Surrounded, it’s the last moment of a last stand when suddenly ships start descending from the sky and a new force troops out: a clone army clad in white, led by Yoda. They quickly collect Padme and the surviving Jedi, and set off in pursuit of Dooku. Now the Separatists are the ones on the back foot, their leaders scrambling to escape. Anakin and Padme are separated when she falls from one of the open-sided clone ships, but Obi-Wan insists on chasing Dooku and Anakin very reluctantly concedes; Padme is picked up by a clone trooper (huh, phrased like that it sounds a completely different situation…) and immediately starts giving commands.

Obi-Wan and Anakin catch up to Dooku inside a cavern, where he coolly proceeds to school them on what Force mastery really looks like. Flinging bolts of Force lightning, he leaves Obi-Wan bleeding on the ground and severs Anakin’s arm, but has no chance to finish them off because right then, Yoda arrives. And…look. Yoda is fantastic. I love Yoda. But it’s hard to describe his fighting style as anything other than really fierce bouncing. He can keep up with his former apprentice just fine, so Dooku exploits a different weak spot; dislodging a heavy column, he leaves Yoda with the choice of catching him or saving the two injured Jedi. Yoda lets him go.

Dooku goes straight to Coruscant to meet with his Sith Master. Unaware of how close their enemy really is, Obi-Wan and Mace Windu stand in the Jedi Temple, watching clone troopers march past below. The only one in the room who sees this army as a terrible thing is Yoda, but by now it’s too late. The war has begun.

Anakin escorts Padme back to Naboo, where they marry in secret, witnessed only by R2-D2 and C3-PO. Of course, if they really wanted to keep their relationship under wraps they wouldn’t have kissed in front of Obi-Wan in the aftermath of Dooku’s escape, but Obi-Wan was admittedly distracted, and besides, he’s accustomed to looking the other way for Anakin.

This is also the beginning of something terrible. But they don’t know that yet.

A lot of people do not like the prequel movies. They do have a lot of flaws. Being unable to decide on a target audience, for instance, so that the plots are too violent for children and much of the humour is too childish for adults; messy scripts, too, though all the Star Wars movies share that. But what the prequels do so very, very well, is explore the ways in which a civilisation can fall. How do terrible things happen? Because good people make bad choices. Or think they have no choices at all.

Because nobody knows what’s coming, except us.

Ladies of Legend: Igraine

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, http://www/kingarthursknights.com, http://arthurianadventure.com/, http://kingarthur.wikia.com

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

My reading of Arthurian legend over years has been less than comprehensive, so 2016 is the year of Round Table Ladies as I research the women involved in these stories, and it has been so worth it because I never knew how many there WERE. I am beginning with a woman kept separate from the bulk of the myth but without whom the key players in Camelot would never have existed: she is Igraine, mother to King Arthur and Morgan le Fay.

In ancient Welsh legend, she is the daughter of Gwenn and Amlawdd Wledig. She may have had up to four sisters – Goleuddydd, Ysbaddaden, Thywanwed and Gwyar – and four brothers: Llydadrudd Emys, Gwrfoddw the Old, Gweir False-Valor and Gweir White-shaft. Also known as Eigyr, Igrayne, Ygerna or Ygraine, the one constant in her story is that she is Arthur’s mother. The Vulgate Cycle gives her three different husbands, the first being Hoel, with whom she had two daughters (one named Blasine); the second was Gorlois, with whom she had three more girls (one named Hermesent). Cador of Cornwall is introduced in another legend as the son of Gorlois, so he may have been Igraine’s child too. Igraine’s third husband was Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives her a daughter by him too, Anna, who in that version becomes the mother of Gawain and Mordred.

Igraine’s family tree, to put it another way, is a mess. And it only gets more chaotic from there!

The Arthurian legend as told by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur does not mention Hoel. In Malory’s version, Igraine is the Duchess of Cornwall, wife to Duke Gorlois. She has three daughters with him: Morgause/ Morgawse, Elaine and Morgan. (Please note: this is not the Elaine who dies for love of Lancelot, or the one who bears his son, there are so many Elaines in Arthurian legend and Lancelot is the kiss of death to them, but fortunately this one appears to have steered clear of him. I’ll talk more about the sisters in a later post.)

Igraine is an exceptionally beautiful woman, not that the term ‘beautiful’ means very much in myth and legend because really every heroine is almost contractually obliged to be the loveliest woman in the room; it is, however, enough to attract the attention of King Uther Pendragon. He summons Igraine and Gorlois to his court in the hopes of seducing her. She could not be less interested. Explaining the situation to her husband, she convinces him to slip away during the night and they return to Cornwall.

Uther doesn’t take well to being refused. He starts a damn war. Gorlois is besieged at Castle Terrabil while Igraine goes to Tintagel. The wizard Merlin is sent for and the way in which Malory describes his arrival makes subsequent events even more awful, because Uther’s man comes across him while Merlin is disguise as a beggar and does not recognise him. Merlin chooses to reveal himself and take Uther’s side in the whole nasty business. He offers to deliver Igraine to Uther in exchange for the child she shall conceive, and disguises the king as Gorlois so he can deceive his way into the duchess’s arms. Seeing his enemy depart from the gates of Terrabil, Gorlois rides out to fight.

Igraine only discovers later that her husband was killed three hours before a man with his face came to her bed.

There is no one left to fight for her and only bad options  left to make peace; Uther quickly compels her into marriage, making her his queen. Soon after, her eldest daughter Morgause marries King Lot of Lothian and Orkney and her second daughter Elaine marries King Nentres of Garlot. The youngest of her girls, Morgan le Fay, is sent to be educated in a nunnery – where, according to Malory, she takes up necromancy. Those are interesting nuns. Morgan later marries yet another king, Uriens of Gore.

It is only when Igraine is heavily pregnant that Uther confesses his deceit. Malory describes her reaction as ‘great joy’, because what woman would not want to be tricked into sex with a man she’d already refused, then have the resulting baby promised away to her rapist’s enabler? Uther enforces Merlin’s terms, taking Igraine’s son from her straight after the birth, compounding the violation. She’s not even allowed to give him a name.

The boy is of course Arthur. He is fostered with a knight called Sir Ector and grows up without any contact with his birth parents. Two years after the birth, Uther Pendragon falls ill and his enemies press the advantage. Merlin rouses the king out of bed with a pep talk about how his presence is vital on the battlefield, and maybe he’s even right, because Uther’s men drive back the Northern army. The victory, however, comes at a price: when Uther gets back to London, he’s too sick to even speak. Merlin manages to prod him into naming Arthur as his successor just before his death, but no one has ever heard of this promised prince before, least of all Arthur himself.

Which leaves all the powerful men of the realm eyeing each other and the throne with worrying interest. Having created the problem, Merlin is the one to solve it. He has the Archbishop of Canterbury summon all the lords to witness a Christmas miracle. Upon a huge stone stands a steel anvil, and embedded through the top of that is a beautiful sword with a challenge written in gold upon the blade: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. A festival of jousting is held as everybody awaits the revealing of the sword’s rightful owner. Among the lords coming to compete is Sir Ector, accompanied by his son Kay (newly made a knight) and the younger boy Arthur.

Kay realises he has lost his sword. Sent home to retrieve it, Arthur finds the house emptied as everyone has gone to watch the jousting. Even as a boy, Arthur is not the type to take defeat easily; he goes to the church and pulls Merlin’s sword free with barely any effort so that his brother can fight. Quick to realise the opportunity he’s been given, Kay tries to claim the sword and the crown that comes with it, but Ector gets to the truth of the matter. He confesses to Arthur that he is not in fact his birth father, that Arthur was delivered to him as a baby by Merlin.

The Archbishop accepts Arthur’s claim; the lords are much less convinced. They don’t want to be ruled by some unknown boy. Time and time again the noblemen of the realm attempt to pull the sword free but the only one who can make it budge is Arthur. Merlin, you’ll note, has vanished again. He does that a lot. Finally the common people insist Arthur must take the throne, and he is made a knight by the Archbishop. The groundswell of popular support means nothing to the neighbouring kings, who refuse to accept Arthur’s overtures of friendship. Only when Arthur is actually under siege does Merlin reappear to announce his true birthright. It eases their main grievance, that Arthur is not of royal blood, but they still will not accept his rule.

So, just to make this point crystal clear, Merlin has told his king’s enemies the truth of Arthur’s parentage, but Arthur, his sisters and MOTHER all remain in the dark. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, MERLIN.

It takes years of warfare and a great deal of bloodshed for Arthur to secure his throne. During that time he meets and has a consensual fling with King Lot’s wife, who we know is also his sister Morgause. It’s only then, when it’s rather too late to benefit anybody except as humiliating hindsight, that Merlin chooses to tell Arthur who his birth parents really are. At once Arthur sends for Igraine, who comes to court with her youngest daughter Morgan le Fay. There is a feast of welcome, but during the festivities one of Arthur’s most favoured knights rises to accuse the widowed queen of – wait for this, it’s bloody priceless – treason, because she never told the world of her son’s birth and is therefore apparently to blame for the wars Arthur has fought to become king. The knight making this accusation is Sir Ulfius, the very same man who was sent to find Merlin for Uther’s deception – a man who knows DAMN WELL what a ghoulish lie was inflicted on Igraine. Her response to him in Malory is such a glorious smackdown that I have to quote it in its entirety:

“I am a woman and I may not fight, but rather than I should be dishonoured, there would be some good man take my quarrel. More, Merlin knoweth well, and ye Sir Ulfius, how King Uther came to me in the Castle of Tintagel in the likeness of my lord, that was dead three hours before, and thereby gat a child that night upon me. And after the thirteenth day King Uther wedded me, and by his commandment when the child was born it was delivered unto Merlin and nourished by him, and so I saw the child never after, nor wot not what is his name, for I knew him never yet…Well I wot, I bare a child by my lord King Uther, but I wot not where his become.”

Ulfius, not nearly shame-faced enough, admits the fault lies more with Merlin than Igraine, and the sorcerer in question displays his usual sense of timing by introducing her to Arthur in front of the full court. The young king eagerly embraces his mother and they cry together, overwhelmed by the moment of reunion. The celebratory feasting lasts for eight days. Hopefully nobody ever tells her about what he did with Morgause.

Of course, that’s hardly the end of family tragedy. Morgan becomes Arthur’s most dedicated enemy; Morgause’s cheerful brood of Orkney boys are all doomed to violent deaths and Mordred, the son she had with Arthur, will be the one to kill his king.

So where is Igraine while all this is happening? Not in Tintagel, that’s for sure – in Le Morte d’Arthur it’s taken over by giants to form a silk sweatshop, and at an undefined point after that it becomes the home of King Mark. In some early stories, Mark is Igraine’s nephew, but in Malory there’s no obvious family connection and no reason to think Igraine is living in Cornwall. An alternative ending in the French Vulgate Cycle sees her in the Grail Castle – presumably keeping well out of the way of her warring children – while in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal, she is discovered in an enchanted castle well after her supposed death. The enchanter may have abducted her, but there are hints she may have gone with him willingly. Was he yet another husband in her long and eventful life?

Igraine is a woman of many myths. She is more than a wife, more than a mother, more than a queen. She was wronged, but could not be silenced; she outlived her conquerer and disappeared into a nebulous future all of her own, separate from the struggles of her children. Her daughters are fiercely independent and steadfast in pursuit of their own happiness; her son and grandsons are all attracted to strong-minded women, without whom Camelot would not have become great. That’s a legacy to be proud of.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Picnic in Provence

Picnic in Provence – Elizabeth Bard

HarperCollins, 2015

It’s been about a decade since Elizabeth Bard was swept off her feet by a handsome Frenchman and moved to Paris. In that time she’s learned the correct way to communicate with cheese mongers and how to wheedle recipes out of her in-laws, but when she and her husband spontaneously decide to move from a Parisian apartment to a historic rural cottage – while she’s pregnant with their first child – it opens a whole new set of questions. How do you talk your neighbours into sharing the secrets of mushrooming? What’s a successful blend of American heritage and French upbringing? What’s the trick to making artisan ice cream? And how do you figure out motherhood when your own mother is on the other side of the world?

This is the sequel to Elizabeth Bard’s first book, Lunch in Paris, a light-hearted memoir/recipe collection exploring her first years in France. Picnic in Provence leans more heavily into memoir territory, with candid details into family conflicts and her struggles with parenthood, but Bard’s love of food and her (mostly) fond exasperation with French culture lead to lots of culinary experiments too. As a vegetarian, not all of those were enjoyable for me to read! And of course, as an Australian, American cultural expectations are just as surprising to me as the French ones, but her anecdotes are interesting and sweet. For more of her work, her website is here.

An Update at the Crosspost

It’s that time again! That is, that time when I look at my blog and realise there is a significant thing I’ve failed to write about, which this time means Contact. Which happened around a month ago. Better late than never!

To have a big speculative fiction convention in Brisbane was a delight to me, and to have the Aurealis Awards ceremony somewhere I could attend it in the same year I was shortlisted for two categories was an incredible piece of luck. I ended up winning neither category – take a look at the list of amazing winners here – but I got to sit next to Juliet Marillier and talk about history and fairy tales and scary landscapes, and meet editor extraordinaire Tehani Wessely in person for the first time, and so many other incredibly clever people. I am running out of superlatives for how much fun I had.

In fact, during the one day of Contact I was able to attend, there was a LOT of talking. I attended most of the panels and had a fantastic time listening to interesting people discuss everything fandom – there was even a woman with a harp playing filk, including a ballad about a witch who might have been a centaur? I don’t know and don’t care, it was brilliant.

Also in March, my baby niece went on her first Easter egg hunt, which was unutterably adorable.

Lately I’ve been reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as research for ‘Ladies of Legend’, which has been a huge eye-opener – how did the Arthurian legends ever get reduced to ‘knights in shining armour saving damsels’ when so often, the damsels save them? How did I never find out until now that Morgana had a crew of sorceress queens to hang out with, and that Guinevere and Isolde were penpals? Anyone who stands still long enough in my general vicinity is sharing in my discoveries.

If you follow me on Tumblr, you’ll know this has led to my fangirling over armour and lady knights. I don’t actually post much of my own work on Tumblr, but as I’ve only recently started ‘Ladies of Legend’, I’ve decided to cross-post them. A Lady will go up each Friday until I catch up to the main blog, beginning tonight with Fair Janet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: thanks to my much more technologically literate siblings, my computer disaster has been resolved and I now have reliable internet access, which is driving home to me just how long it’s been since I’ve had reliable internet access, and I might be revelling a little bit.