Review: 'The Guinevere Deception' Is Surprisingly SpellbindingKiersten White's retelling of the King Arthur story puts his queen Guinevere at the center — only she's not really Guinevere. She's a magic-wielding changeling, sent to court to protect the king.
A girl in disguise, a king in need of protection, and a conspiracy so deep that even those at its heart don't know the whole truth: The Guinevere Deception takes the familiar trappings of Arthurian legend and spins them into an earthy fantasy.
Guinevere arrives in Camelot ready to marry King Arthur and rule beside him as his Queen. Arthur has already accomplished so much: He overthrew the tyrant Uther Pendragon and fought back the ancient magic that threatened the safety of his kingdom, then banished magic altogether to protect his people. That included sending away his mentor and guardian, Merlin. Now Arthur's kingdom is devoid of all magic ... or at least, it's supposed to be.
No one notices that the king's new bride ties protective knots in her hair and binds the doorways of the castle with spells. No one realizes that she isn't really Guinevere at all, but rather a changeling raised to wield magic so that she might slip into Camelot and use her powers to protect Arthur from the rise of dark magic that seeks once again to destroy everything he's worked so hard to build.
But Guinevere is far more adept at warding doorways than she is in getting along with other people and blending into court life. The more she becomes convinced that Arthur is in imminent danger, the harder it becomes to hide her true nature from the people around her — people who would not hesitate to condemn her if they found out she had brought magic into Camelot once again.
As an enthusiast of Kiersten White's recent female-centric horror classic reimaginings, I was very curious to see what she would do with a more fantasy-centric mythos, especially one so dear to my heart. I was the kind of kid that cut her teeth on Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series and Mary Stuart's The Crystal Cave, then moved on to The Mists of Avalon and a battered, second-hand copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain. I grew up into the kind of adult who has been known to complain about how annoying it is that every movie adaptation claims to be "the true story of Camelot" and then focuses on the Guinevere/Arthur/Lancelot love triangle when that was actually a later addition to the legend that comes mostly from French romances ... so, I suppose you could say that I have Opinions.
It's therefore pretty remarkable that The Guinevere Deception pleasantly surprised me with many of its choices without ever stepping too clumsily on the toes of its source material. We've gotten Guinevere's point of view before, but the idea that she is an impostor, sent in the real Guinevere's place, feels like a fresh approach. Merlin always retires from the narrative at some point in Arthur's tale, and here, White comes up with clever new reasons that shift as the story progresses. Certain characters are gender-swapped, traditional storylines are shifted for LGBT reveals, and the concept of consent is explored intriguingly if not deeply.
One of my favorite aspects of the world that White has created is the practical feeling of her magic. Guinevere ties knots to cast spells, and another character uses embroidery — both arts available to women in the time period being evoked. Beliefs around women's magic have always been tied to the crafts and tools they use for domestic work, so this gives the magic a very folksy, historic feel. By contrast, the more flashy, elemental magic used during the bigger set-pieces pales a bit, seeming more run-of-the-mill by comparison.
In general, the places where The Guinevere Deception falls back on heavily explored tropes and themes are where my attention drifted. One character twist in particular seemed to be intended to shock me as it did Guinevere, but anyone familiar with the material will see it coming from the start. In some ways, I almost wish that this story had left its Arthurian inspirations behind and committed to being its own unique fantasy, free from all the traditional baggage and spoilers. That said, for someone less familiar with the hundreds of other adaptations that have come before it, The Guinevere Deception will offer an enjoyable and even thoughtful entry into a mythos that has obsessed us for generations.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books andQuill & Quire.