Here Lies Arthur is an alternative take on the Arthurian legend, centering on the adventures of a young English girl named Gwynna. Made homeless when the Arthur of legend and his war band sack the homestead of her lord, she flees the battle and is later rescued in the woods by Myrddin, a bard who serves Arthur as an advisor and magician. Myrddin, a man who is agnostic by nature, uses Gwynna to masquerade as the lady of the lake and then raises her as a boy through the early part of her life. Gwynna watches the exploits of Arthur as she grows up, contrasting the rough, brutal man with the heroic stories Myrddin creates about him. The book ultimately follows her adventures and how they are intertwined with the legend of Arthur.
Written by Philip Reeve, the author of the notable and very odd, Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles) science fiction series, Here Lies Arthur was originally published in England in 2007 to good reviews and a few awards. It now has made its way across the pond and has been published in the United States.
Unlike many of the fantasy style recountings of the Arthurian saga, Reeve chooses a realistic approach, framing the Arthurian saga in a more realistic world, made with politics and rough men who fit the period. Presented in the first person as narrated by the girl Gwynna, there is no magic in this story aside from that which Myrddin makes reference to in the many tall tales he tells to help establish Arthur as a hero.
Arthur himself is a rough and mostly non-heroic personage, who gains fame not through his own actions, but through the stories spun by Myrddin. Myrddin, who hopes to find a leader to unite England to stave off the depredations of the lawless world around them, is a charlatan with a ruthless nature. He only rescues Gwynna because she might serve a useful purpose to that effect. This is not the heroic tale of old, but a story of flawed men in a brutal world.
Reeve is a good writer. His style is solid and readable, and this book certainly is well written enough to keep one's attention. I have a few quibbles with his choice to switch from past tense to present tense on occasion. It breaks the flow of the story and seems to serve no purpose. But I suppose it was an artistic conceit.
I've always found the realistic take on legends to be an interesting artistic device. Reeve is not the first to do this sort of thing, though I think it's the first time I've seen it done with the Arthurian legend to such depth. And it's a fun tale in some regards, one which takes the old standards and characters of the legend and puts them into a realistic context. He does a good job of it too. It was fun linking the characters to the legend and seeing what he did with them.
That said, I have to admit that a lot of Young Adult fiction leaves me cold these days with its dark take on everything. In this case, it's almost like Reeve wanted to throw cold water onto all of the mythic and magical Arthurian legends by painting Arthur as much of a brutal product of his era as he possibly could. There is an underlying depressed tone to the whole tale, filled with the cynicism of its main character. The whole bent of the tale is that heroes are never what the legends say they are and that stories have more power than real people do. It's not really a worldview I subscribe to entirely, though I suppose it does have some truth to it.
In any case, if one is willing to overlook the tone of the novel, it is quite readable and somewhat entertaining. Reeve's fresh take on a well known legend will definitely appeal to a lot of readers.