Review: 'Sword Stone Table,' Edited By Swapna Krishna And Jenn NorthingtonSword Stone Table brings together a group of authors from marginalized groups to re-imagine the legends of King Arthur for new eras, places and players, inviting all to sit at the Round Table.
Who is Arthur? A king, a story. A man unstuck in time, somewhere between the fall of Rome and the naming of England. Unmoored in place — where was Camelot exactly? Try to point to it on a map and the compass needle spins wildly: There are as many Camelots as there are stories, and the stories are infinite.
Or they should be. In the summer of 2018 Jenn Northington was asking her soon-to-be co-editor (and occasional NPR reviewer) Swapna Krishna, "Where are the gender-bent Arthur stories? The race-bent retellings, the queered ones?" Thus was born Sword Stone Table, an Arthurian anthology of 16 stories by authors from groups which experience marginalisation.
The nature of a short story collection is that, for any given reader, some stories will resonate more than others. As this collection views its Arthurian theme through a wider than usual array of lenses, that effect is amplified, as though some unseen hand had plunked down an elaborate chunk of quartz crystal in the center of the Round Table, through which each seated knight sees a different image, a different reflection, a different light. You'll find a lot to like and, almost certainly, something to love — whether you're seeking adventure, tragedy, self-discovery or just plain fun. Every story in it feels well-chosen, from Roshani Chokshi's tale of a woman who sidesteps destiny to find happiness and wisdom, to Sive Doyle's picaresque Spenserian teenage quest, to Sarah MacLean's steamy scabbard-tingling swordsmithing romance.
The book is divided into three sections titled Once, Present and Future: tales set in the past (or somewhere like it); the present (roughly); and the future (of this world or another). Ausma Zehanat Khan opens the book with a beautifully paced detective story of the Qadi Yusuf and his enthusiastic student Ayaan journey from Seville to Britain, where the king seeks Yusuf's expertise in a delicate matter regarding the queen and her favoured knight. Khan gives us the court of Camelot through the eyes of a citizen of the Almohad Caliphate, and draws a convincing portrait of two cultures in confluence and conflict.
Nisi Shawl's "I Being Young And Foolish" is centered around Merlin's student and lover Nia, a wanderer originally from Uganda. I found Nia's story to be a moving metaphor for migrancy; far from being rootless, she learns the root system of every new place she lives, digging into the ground and tasting the tree roots, enmeshing herself in language and knowledge.
Meanwhile, from 13th-century French romance, Daniel Lavery has unearthed Sir Galehaut, bosom friend and beloved companion to Sir Lancelot, whom English authors ignored or minimised, perhaps in discomfort at the two knights' frequent proclamations of love. Lavery has a deep grounding in all things medieval combined with a visionary imagination, and he manages to capture the absolute strangeness of medieval characters' reactions with a down-to-earth clarity that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or go "Wait, what?"
The Present section gives us an assortment of alternate Arthurs: Here, Arthur is Arturo Reyes, a washed-up baseball player chasing his father's lost bat and his last chance to get out of the minor leagues; Arthur is Artie Pendragon, scion of a political family leading a Depression-era march on Washington; Arthur is an Anishinaabe kid called "Fart" by the schoolyard bully; Arthur is a lanky twentysomething named Arjun after a different legendary hero. All of these Arthurs are seeking something — connection; knowledge; purpose; the truth, even if it hurts.
Jessica Plummer's "Flat White" and S. Zainab Williams's "The Quay Stone" both deal with the allure and glamor of getting involved with a figure of legend — and the price exacted in return, whether you're making Lancelot a latte in London or navigating the nightclub scene with Nimue in Singapore. But sometimes the magic is benevolent. Actor/singer/writer Anthony Rapp gives us Merlin as a small-time stage magician in 1990s New York who manages to bring a moment's peace to two young men, one dying, one despairing.
In the Future section, the wizardry is technological. Half-sick of shadows? For a small price (there's always a price) the lively downloaded memories of a motorcyclist-errant can be delivered to your lonely bower; clones of yourself can be sent to an entertaining death when no other thrill will do; or you can always create your own wild green forest on the dry red surface of Mars. This last is the setting for Alexander Chee's "Little Green Men," a riff on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight involving a Wiccan millionaire, a group of young reality TV stars, a foot race through the Valles Marineris and (as in the original) a certain amount of kissing.
Who is Arthur? Who were Guinevere, Lancelot, Elaine, Merlin, Morgan le Fay? The answers change with every telling, in every generation. For now, the authors of Sword Stone Table give us all the Arthurs we could want — and remind us that any corner of the world can be a Camelot, any stone may conceal a sword, and that the Round Table has enough seats for us all.
Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano, writer, translator and Shakespearean text coach, born in Washington, D.C., and living in London.