Guinevere isn’t Guinevere.
That’s one of the first things we learn in Kiersten White’s “The Guinevere Deception.” The novel is an Arthurian retelling through Guinevere’s eyes. Or rather, through the eyes of the wood witch posing as the princess. Magic has been driven from Camelot, Merlin banished. The sorcerer sent Not-Guinevere in his place, tasking her with marrying Arthur as cover for a secret mission.
The book, the first in a trilogy, has a lot of secrets. Secret identities, secret passageways, and plots. The perfect crucible for a heroine whose deepest desire is to be known, to be seen and recognized for all that she is. Though sometimes even she’s not sure who she is. She's given up everything for this and the deeper she gets into Camelot, into Arthur’s confidence and Guinevere’s life, the less sure she feels.
Our story opens with Arthur's knights escorting his bride to Camelot. It's Guinevere's first test and without meaning to she makes small mistakes that could give her away. She realizes quickly that her slip-ups aren't going unnoticed. Mordred — Arthur's nephew, and most trusted knight — is watching her."Mordred, always watching. He was beautiful, smooth-faced, with mossy-green eyes. She was reminded of the elegance of the snake gliding through the grass. But when she caught him staring, his smile had more of the wolf than of the snake."
Guinevere keeps tabs on Mordred, afraid that he could expose her. It isn't lost on her that no one seems to like or trust him. He's the son of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress who tried to murder her half-brother Arthur before he could even walk. People see it as a sign of how gracious and good-hearted their king is that he didn't banish Mordred on sight.
Arthur is... well we expect Arthur to be lovable, don't we? Or at the very least, we expect him to be the kind of king that people will tell stories of again and again and again. In "The Guinevere Deception," Arthur is sunshine; his light is bright and warm and diffuse. It's a light under which anyone has a chance to thrive and which is always moving through the sky, never fixed to a single point.
The thing I can't get over, the thing about these books that feels so absolutely tailored to me, is how they speak to the desire to be known — and the ways that other people can and can't give that to you.
At one point, Guinevere is trying to learn the identity of a potential threat. She wants to get a piece of their disguise to perform magic on it, because "anything with a purpose to obscure could not help but reveal in equal measure." What a lens to look at Guinevere through! The work she does to obscure her identity and her true purpose in Camelot is, in its way, revealing.
Guinevere and Mordred develop a friendship borne partly out of how much time they spend suspiciously watching each other; they learn each other's behaviors and in doing so discover that there's more than meets the eye. While Mordred hasn't assumed anyone else's identity, there's a way in which he also spends a great deal of time pretending. At one point, the two are in the market and Mordred (like all suspicious and intriguing men before him), lounges against a fence. "Anyone noticing him would think he looked bored," we're told. "But Guinevere saw the way his eyes never stopped moving, never stopped taking in information." Mordred is always looking bored, looking lazy, looking disinterested. The facade he's constructed is what gives him away to Guinevere. That sense of discovery, and the recognition it brings, connects them in a way that's hard for Guinevere to articulate.
Arthur's relationship to Guinevere is hugely important but wholly different from the one she has with Mordred. Arthur makes no effort to obfuscate and so offers no chance to be revealed. There are things he keeps to himself, but he’s never trying to appear as something other than he is. The good king can be diplomatic, but he's not deceitful. Arthur never seems particularly troubled by the premise of being known. He worries about treaties and harvests and borders, not whether he's being perceived. The distinction between the man he is in public and the man he is in private is one drawn for conservation of energy and a modicum of privacy, not for fear of not being accepted or understood.
Guinevere learns quickly what it is to flourish under the warmth of Arthur's attention and the feeling of withering when it leaves her. He doesn't see her as a puzzle to be solved or a problem to keep an eye on. And that should be good, should be a relief. But taking someone at face value only works if their face is their own, if what they're offering to everyone is the bulk of who they are. But what happens when it isn't? What happens if Guinevere isn't Guinevere at all?
"The Excalibur Curse," the third book in the Camelot Rising series, comes out on December 7th. I honestly don't know what I'm going to do with myself in the meantime.
P.S. #1) In an interview, Kiersten White said she watched a lot of Chris Evans interviews to help her write Arthur. I needed other people to also know this fun fact.
P.S. #2) I vaguely remember as a kid reading a YA/Middle-grade novel in which Guinevere pretends to be a boy (possibly to train as a knight?). I also remember there was some kind of Q&A/afterword in the book where the author said she wouldn't write a follow-up basically because Guinevere running off with Lancelot would be a bummer. Did you also read this book? Do you know what book I'm talking about? Have not been able to Google my way to a title and am now obsessed.
(Newly obsessed with the artwork of Alexandra Dvornikoval!)
On The Bi Pod we talked about relationship dynamics and growing up in our episode, "Who's responsible for taking care of us?"