Le sigh! I finished this book and I was still lost in the world of old Britain in the time just after Camelot fell, a time of knights, ladies, evil and greedy villains ripping the land apart, war-torn lands in need of heroes- and found them in this magnificent historical tale.
I wouldn’t say I was the most ardent fan of the classical tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but let’s say, it is a story that I never tire of reading or hearing in its many permutations. I was nervous to pick up a book that began shortly after Camelot because of that sad event, but I couldn’t pass it by, either. Thankfully, I bucked up and read The Return of Sir Percival because I would have missed out on something rather special.
The author did a fabulous job of seating his tale firmly into the tempestuous history of the times and of the legendary Arthur tales while building his own original plot and cast of characters. Percival was the main character, but he was surrounded by other well-known, little known, or original characters of the author’s making. The flaws and the strengths, the depths, and the motivations made Percival and the rest completely captivating to follow as the author slowly built the foundation with several narrators, their backstories, and the beginning situation before let the story flow.
The Return of Sir Percival begins with just that- Percival’s return to the shores of Britain. Percival was sent away the decade before by Arthur and Merlin on a quest to find the Holy Grail. In his absence, he has undergone dark times and difficult adventures. He returns feeling his failure to his king and his pain of not being by Arthur’s side and that of his fellow knights when Camelot fell. He seeks one face and hopes to find peace with his friend Capussa at his side.
But peace is not to be- at least not yet. Torn apart by Morgana and the Viking Warlords, brigands, and strife, Britain’s people and their miserable fate call out to the honorable knight he is. Percival can’t go on his own business and do nothing when the people’s pain is before him. Capussa and others rally to his side as the hero of legend attempts the impossible.
Morgana, the cunning and evil woman behind the fall of Camelot, remains in the land of the Britains for one reason only- revenge. The man she seeks continues to elude her. Her spies, her plots, and her venom cannot bring her Merlin. She holds a dark knight, mercenaries, and more at her disposal, but so far, nothing. Now the Emperor has removed his payments and it is her own silver- or rather the wealth her slaves extract from the royal mines now paying for her private war. Meanwhile, the viking warlords grow restless and more covetuous for more including what she holds as their locust-like nature has bled their own holdings dry.
The dark knight, Lord Aeron, waits his chance for redemption. He made a pledge of honor with an evil devil to protect a lady- a queen. His pledge has brought him to commit actions that steal his soul. The word that the last living knight of the Round Table come home alive brings hope and pain for what is to come.
Guinevere, Queen of the Britons, lives in shadows now. She quietly holds her peace in an abbey with her two ladies and retainers that not so much guard her as keep her prisoner for a bishop who skims away the wealth of her remaining lands. Her skin crawls when he is present, but even that cannot distract her from the knowledge of her people enslaved, slaughtered, and bowed over in pain. She is helpless before it though she does what she can with her ‘sparrows’ eyes’ watching from all corners of the kingdom and looking for a chance that will allow Guinevere to do what she can. Guinevere thought once before to rally the lords and the warriors, but few came to her call and have troubles of their own from the Viking hoard. The land is in pieces and she remembers the days of Camelot- the courage, the loyalty, the chivalry of the knights. There was one knight who saved her life, who protected her, and who left on a long quest never to return. Percival. Now rumors and reports say a valiant knight claiming to be Percival has returned and is on the move.
Alright, this slow build story held great promise when it began and I was satisfied to see it make good on its promise. It resonated true with the ongoing story post-Camelot. This is Percival’s story, but actually it went beyond that and told the story of old Britain. It felt history-making as it progressed. While it’s not an overt fantasy story and has more of a historical fictional tone, it has fantasy elements and tender romance. Morgana’s evil feels palpable just as Merlin’s magic is that of a sharp mind. The true magical elements of the story are used sparingly and at pivotal points just as the build of action is just the right balance with the intrigue and plotting going on.
Percival is the perfect hero character in that he feels strong and true, but has doubts that he can fulfill what seems to be his destiny. Capussa was a brilliant side-kick figure. He wryly calls it like he sees it and keeps Percival balanced with his earthy wisdom. Guinevere is no damsel in distress though she is purposely made to seem that way to protect her. The Queen comes into her own as a result of Camelot and Arthur’s fall. I enjoyed how the glances back showed all this. She hides much as does Percival, but the reader is allowed to see what is between them.
One of the most riveting characters is Lord Aeron. This tortured man was doing the best he could with what he was dealt. He was pushed well beyond what normal people could bear, but he endured it for the sake of love and loyalty. His part of the story constantly had me gulping back tears.
Merlin was a delight. I loved the way he is written. His moral compass doesn’t entirely point to true north, but he has one. He tends to take the ‘whatever is needed to tree the coon’ approach and has a wicked sense of humor. Shades of gray characters like Merlin can really make a story so much more colorful and deep.
The villains are products of their times, for the most part- Hengst, Ivaar, the Pict, and more. They were grubbing and greedy men who used their strength for personal gain and power- taking advantage where they could. Ugh, I so wanted their sorry existence erased.
But Morgana was in a league of her own. I adore a well-written villain that I love to hate, but even I just wanted to see her ended. She is cold and calculating and cares for nothing beyond herself. She is chilling as she goes about her business.
The end was truly worth all the build up. All is resolved and then there is that little jangling cliffie to show where things will go for book two.
In summary, this was one of my best reads of the year and I am already waiting with little patience for book two. Those who love Arthurian variations or just well-written historical fiction or romance should definitely pick this one up.
I received this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.