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Cornwall, England, 1193. Eleanor of Aquitaine, the indomitable dowager queen, has ordered all of England onto a war footing while her son King Richard languishes in a German dungeon.
When Gwendolyn de Cardinham happens upon mercenaries from Prince John's rebellion, she draws her sword and defends her home as well as any knight could have. But more of John's mercenaries are coming, her sister-in-law claims Gwendolyn’s husband has died on crusade, and the local prior has absurdly informed Gwendolyn that King Arthur’s fabled sword is destined to be hers.
Reviewed from ARC
Narrative: Third Person, Past Tense.
There is something truly satisfying in that moment when you realise that what you thought was going to be a Arthurian Romance, turns out to be book about a bad arse warrior woman, wielding a sword and cutting down her enemies. Well, it's not a simple as that, but I certainly had a 'hell yeah!' moment, when in the first couple of pages the main protagonist Gwendolyn decides to defend one of her maids by whipping out a sword and cutting off a man's hand. Now there's a introduction if I ever saw one...
The truth is it's not all flying lopped off hands and heads, Gwendolyn's Sword is a historically based fantasy set in England during the 12th century, in the time of the Crusades and King Richard's incarceration in Germany.
Gwendolyn is left by her Crusading husband to keep their estate running, and though she is in a time period that noble women were not considered of much worth unless it was to pretty the room, she is no feinting lady! Using hard won knowledge to keep the estate viable, as others in the area fall by the wayside; she also trains with her estate's guard, learning how to fight for her lands in times of need. She takes her cuts, bruises and breaks with stoicism, relishing in the next scar she might acquire to prove she is worthy to be considered a true fighter. Gwendolyn is wits and warrior rolled into one, but is given the extra dimensions of generosity and selflessness to make her shine as a character.
When Prince John, King Henry's brother starts a rebellion, and her scheming sister-in-law decides to forcibly take her lands; Gwendolyn is determined to visit Eleanor of Aquitaine in Londinium, with her trusty side kick William. Her hook to win the queen's audience? Apparently she is the heir of King Arthur and has access to the fabled Caliburn (later named Excalibur), something Prince John desperately wants and will do anything for.
When reading a Historical Fantasy, there needs to be a good mix of historical fact, fiction and fantasy elements, or the balance gets shaky and the book collapses due to one side outweighing the other. Gwendolyn's Sword does pretty well in keeping good cohesion in this area! By using historical figures, that in most part don't have a great deal written about them aside from official records, Haltom has been able to set the course of the book around essential dates and places, yet use a lot of imagination to fill in the characters traits, movements and motivations.
The fantasy elements come from the legends (truths?) of King Arthur, Excalibur, Druidic intervention and the occasional act of sorcery. The mix worked out well in most cases, and was helped along with the undercurrents of magical thinking that still existed in that time period. In the Southern reaches of England, some still held belief in the old gods, and the Welsh factions held fast to the return of King Arthur. In turn the fantasy elements in that area never felt out of place within the context of the novel. There was some really good exposition on how these legends are treated by the Plantagenets, giving it some solid ground work for the 'magic' to feel quite realistic against the history.
The dark sorcery wasn't quite as well fleshed out, as it was pretty well condensed into one scene that didn't have me entirely convinced. Fantasy is about suspending disbelief, but it is always slightly easier to keep it steady when it has some scaffolding under it!
Haltom has quite the knack for making the reader feel the like they are in the thick of things with her historically based fictional scenes: battle training, the streets of Londinium, medieval meal times, the inner workings of a keep and so on. It doesn't shy from the realities of living life within the restrictions of the time period. There are times that the feeling of being so severely unwashed, makes you want to take a shower to scrub off the imagined dirt and pungent odour. Dealing with menstrual cycles when neurofen and tampons just aren't there to be grabbed when needed, is actually quite enlightening. It points out the little things, to give the bigger picture.
Occasionally it did try a little too hard to prove it's historical facts; there were some descriptive scenes of historical places that did get bogged down a little. Things like the outward appearance and defences of Arundel Castle, became cumbersome rather than essential. However, it was a rare occurrence, and in most cases there was a good balance between fact, fiction and character.
The relationship between Gwendolyn and William was an intriguing one, and it was surprising yet delightful, to see where it heads. Without being too spoilery, Gwendolyn is a virtuous woman with a husband (though very much absent), and although she plays hard with the boys, she doesn't play hard with the boys. It actually felt quite strange, because in so many stories, when a woman takes on that warrior role, she also seems to acquire a rather voracious sexual appetite! It's become rather expected! Although that aspect is never actually bothersome, it was entirely refreshing to see the stereotype discarded in Gwendolyn's case. She is no prudish lady, but the direction of the relationship gave her more space for her to grow for herself, into her own woman and take her own direction.
Extra kudos is given for the Author's Notes, in which Haltom explains how she's melded history and fantasy, and what is fact or fiction in Gwendolyn's Sword. A must have in all Historical Fiction in my opinion!
I really enjoyed Gwendolyn's Sword! Definitely one for the Historical Fantasy lovers, especially those interested in the relationships between the newer English traditions and the older Briton ones. The ending suggests there might be more to come, and I can only hope we do get the chance to see more of Gwendolyn and her Sword!
Hardcopy Worthy? Absolutely.