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REVIEW: Lancelot: Her Story by Carol Anne Douglas

Title: Lancelot: Her Story
Series: Yes, forthcoming
Author(s): Carol Anne Douglas
Genre: Arthurian lore, historical fiction
LGBTQ+ Category: Lesbian
Publisher: Hermione Books
Pages/Word Count: 619 pages

Review by Andy

 

The legendary Lancelot is reimagined as a woman disguised as a man in Carol Anne Douglas’ lesbian tribute to the King Arthur canon.

Douglas, who describes herself as a “lifelong student of Arthurian and Shakespearean lore,” constructs a post-Roman, Medieval world that is otherwise meticulously loyal to the source material. The story follows Arthur’s unification of the British kings to fight the Saxons and his victorious ascent to power. As the first book in a two-part epic, it promises to take the legend from start to finish, laying groundwork for Arthur’s ultimate battle with his nephew Mordred. Douglas maintains the legend’s many characters, large and small, as well as its conventional sensibility and themes with a few important differences.

Lancelot is the chosen name of a highborn girl whose father insists she be raised as a boy following her mother’s sexual assault and murder. Women’s lives are cheap in Lancelot’s (Anna’s) barbaric world, and she foresees a future of violence and subjugation for herself. She is a tomboyish sort to start and does not mind particularly learning to be a knight versus marrying and keeping a home. Having witnessed her mother’s brutal death, she swears to prevent attacks upon other women and is understandably skeptical about men’s motives.

The story focuses equally on Guinevere whose worldview is similarly shaped by the tragic fate of women in her life. Her mother, who largely served her father’s interest to raise worthy heirs, dies young in childbirth. Meanwhile, Guinevere discovers her father’s many marital indiscretions and detests the prospect of being misused by a man in the same way. She has ambitions to lead a kingdom justly rather than being a king’s trophy. Her emotional bonds and attractions favor women.

The inevitability of Lancelot and Guinevere meeting and falling in love provides a nice narrative tug, and once they do, their love story is filled with challenges one might expect from such circumstances—Guinevere’s marriage to Arthur, the lack of privacy to share their feelings, and long periods of separation while Lancelot is off at war. This is a book that believes full-throttle in the virtue of true love, so none of that can stand between the two main characters. It’s an enjoyable story for HEA fans though lacking circumspection and depth of historical context for readers preferring a portrait of the time period over romance-adventure.

Douglas’ writing style is economical and unadorned and works quite well for speeding through the story. While there are a lot of rotating points of view and side dramas beyond the two leads’ stories, scenes are short and to the point. The effect is something like an Arthurian soap opera. It’s comfy storytelling with expected twists and turns signifying high stakes but never stepping beyond a cozy boundary in which, besides the tragedies of Lancelot and Guinevere’s childhoods, no one from the central cast really gets hurt. The choice to stick to canon imposes limitations as well. It’s a safe reinvention that doesn’t do much to show the world of Camelot in a different light.

The exception to that, and the principal draw, is taking the story from a lesbian perspective in which the exploitation of women is vindicated and love between two women is possible. There’s a nice cast of lesbian supporting characters in addition to the leads, repopulating the traditionally heterocentric world of Arthurian legend in a lovely, refreshing way. While Lancelot and Guinevere’s attitudes toward the treatment of women feel modern at times, no doubt the story furthers our understanding of the historical domination of women while proposing how some may have found their way through those barriers and made important social and political contributions. As the men who share a ‘brotherhood’ with Lancelot discover she’s a woman, they’re forced to reconsider their beliefs about gender roles. Guinevere meanwhile fights for fair treatment of abused wives and girls who appeal to her husband’s court.

In that sense, Lancelot has more in common with reclaimed women’s histories like Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan rather than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s earthy, mystical Mists of Avalon. A good story for readers who are fans of King Arthur lore and fast-paced, period lesbian romance.

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