Authors who incorporate, interpret, or subvert Arthurian legends in works of contemporary fantasy take a huge risk: the failure rate of such books is staggeringly high. Every so often, though, a writer is skilled enough to utilize the stories of King Arthur and Camelot to significant effect. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy is definitely on the list. So, too, is Song of the Sword, the impressive new YA novel from Regina writer Edward Willett.
Fifteen-year-old Ariane is struggling to adjust to a new life. After two years in foster care, she now lives with her aunt, and must deal with both a sense of displacement and bullying at the hands of older girls in her new high school. These aren’t the worst of her problems, though. Since the disappearance of her mother, Ariane has been plagued with premonitions and visions of a woman and a sword, visions that typically occur when water touches her skin.
Things begin to make more sense, sort of, when she meets the Lady of the Lake herself. The Lady reveals that Ariane is her descendant and that a quest has fallen to her. She and Wally Knight – younger brother of one of Ariane’s tormenters – must collect the shards of shattered Excalibur and prevent them from falling into the hands of the evil Merlin, who is living incognito as a software billionaire and is intent on using the sword to gain power over the human world and foment a war with faerie.
It’s an audacious conceit and a daring subversion of the Arthurian mythos, and Willett backs it up with a taut, compelling narrative, well-drawn characters, and a keen sense of genuine peril and true wonder. It’s a powerful, fun, engaging read, and it’s the first of a series, so readers have much to look forward to.
The only lingering issue with the book is that, given its target demographic, Song of the Sword could very well be a first exposure to the legends of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Lady for many young readers. Not only will some of the force of Willett’s conceit be lost (as those young readers will lack the background to fully appreciate what he’s doing), but more significantly, it has the potential to skew the initial reading of those legends.