J. Robert King has done some magical things to the King Arthur mythos. Now, King continues his Arthurian story, in Le Morte D'Avalon by giving us the conflict between nature and warfare. This time, having told the story of Merlin and Lancelot, King gives us the story of Morgan Le Fay. Does King pull off a third great book? While it's interesting, it's nowhere near the level of the first two. A lackluster ending makes it even worse.
As is common knowledge to anybody even semi-familiar with the Arthurian legends, Morgan is Arthur's half-sister who bears a son with him, Mordred. King expands on this, making Morgan become an incarnation of Gaea, the earth-goddess. Morgan foresees that her half-brother will bring nothing but strife to the land, and that he must be destroyed before he can do that. Camelot, rather than being the paradise portrayed in the legends, will instead be the catalyst for some of the darkest times in history. Ever since the fall of Gaea, men have subjugated women and brought nothing but violence and war to the land that was once green and lush. She is determined to bring it back, starting her own earth religion that works toward this end.
As she continues her machinations against Arthur, she happens upon Lancelot, who she discovers is the "perfect consort" of a goddess like she is becoming. She is determined to win him to her side, and she becomes increasingly jealous when she finds out about Lancelot's fascination with Guinevere. This jealousy colours many of her interactions with both of them (as well as Arthur) for the rest of the book. It also causes her to make decisions she wouldn't normally make, jeopardizing her plans. Will she achieve the paradise on Earth that is her goal? Or will the representatives of Christianity and the Faerie folk defeat her?
While the concept of this book is intriguing, I thought the execution was flawed. This is not so much because of how King presented the whole scenario, but because many of the events are just rehashes of what he put in the first two books, just told from a different side. At times, this works (such as Morgan's first attempt at winning Lancelot, when she and her two disciples try to woo him into their lair), but at others it really becomes boring. The ending sequence in particular (No spoilers) is tedious, with Morgan mainly observing events that happened in the previous books. She provides some commentary, but she's not involved. The ending jumps from event to event with no real continuity. Whole sections of the previous books are discussed in a few pages and then the book just limps into nothingness.
While I'm discussing the ending, there is a really nice coda that really ties the series together. I thought that Lancelot du Lethe was the ending, and that it really worked well that way too. Adding Morgan to the mix, it brings an even more satisfying conclusion, as character arcs are wrapped up and the people involved move on with their lives/afterlives. I could have done without the very last pages, though, where King brings a modern-day spin to the gender issues that he's explored throughout the book, though. They seemed trite and unnecessary.
This brings me to the main fault of the book, in my opinion. The gender politics are very heavy-handed in this one. First, the main struggle is between the "male" religion of Christianity and the "female" religion that Morgan sets up (and becomes the embodiment of). Thus, most of the men in the book are either would-be attackers or emasculated men, while most of the women characters are noble and honorable. Some of this may be because of the viewpoint we get (it's all Morgan's), so the shading may be understandable. Arthur and Lancelot are the only two men who don't fall into this trap. Arthur is pretty much a non-character, being the focal point of Morgan's schemes but not interacting with her much. Lancelot is the "perfect consort" so must appear like a beacon of nobility. King does turn this whole idea on its head later in the book, demonstrating that the world still needs what men bring to it, and that a world dominated by a Gaea-like paradise would be, though very green, very cold and sterile. It's a nice contrast, but it's hurt by the fact that there are no sympathetic male characters in the first part of the book. It all appears to be a bunch of male-bashing, and twisting it at the end doesn't help the beginning.
Morgan herself is well done (until she becomes just an observer, at least, when she becomes boring). She walks the fine line between the villainess that we're all familiar with and a sympathetic character. King doesn't do as good of a job with any other characters, however. Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot are based on their portrayal in the other two books, but unfortunately you only get that if you've actually read them. Taken alone, they are woefully underdone. None of the other characters are remarkable in the slightest. King does a decent job with the writing as well, though his prose doesn't rise to the level that he reached in the first two books.
While, in hindsight, a book about Morgan is almost necessary to complete the series he has started, Le Morte D'Avalon almost feels written as an afterthought. It doesn't read anything like the first two and it seems to be more of a rehash of events than is absolutely necessary. If you've liked the first two, this is a valuable conclusion to the series. But I'd buy it in paperback at least, if not waiting for the library.