Tuesday, May 14, 2013

book review - Hawk of May
Gillian Bradshaw, Hawk of May
(Simon & Schuster, 1980; Bantam, 1992; Sourcebooks, 2010)

In texts delving into the historical Arthur, I've read that, before the French Romantics invented the knight Lancelot, the greatest hero of King Arthur's legend (besides Arthur himself, of course) was Gawain.
Gillian Bradshaw's novel Hawk of May gives us Gawain as we've never seen him before. For one thing, he bears a different name -- the Gaelic variant Gwalchmai (literally, "Hawk of May"). Too, he's not the brave warrior we see in some versions of the Arthur saga, or the gruff bully we see in others. Rather, he's a young boy, overshadowed by his demanding father Lot, his warrior brother Agravain and his sorceress mother Morgawse. He's perhaps the best horseman on the Orcade Islands (or Orkneys) where his father holds his realm, but he's an average swordsman and spearman at best. He knows he'll never be a great warrior, and so he turns instead to the dark magic of his mother.
It doesn't take long for the boy to be overwhelmed by his mother's evil, however, and he flees one Samhain night after granting a quick and merciful death to Morgawse's intended ritual sacrifice, a loyal fighter in Lot's service. Fleeing the queen's demonic curse, he takes refuge in a small cove -- and is whisked away by a magical boat to the Isles of the Blessed, where nearly three years pass in a single night and the Celtic Lord of Light, Lugh of the Long Hand, gifts him with the magical sword Caledvwlch. Then he's magically transported to Britain, where he's captured by Saxons, encounters a magical horse to help him escape, and stumbles directly into a meeting with his elder brother Agravain, now in Arthur's company. Along the way, he discovers that he's really quite the warrior after all....
In summary, it sounds a little hokey. And, in places, it is. But Hawk of May is actually quite stirring, and it's an excellent novel for fans of Arthurian lore. Bradshaw's perspective on Gwalchmai and his internal struggles shines a new light on a character too often underutilized. Diehard Arthur fans might be disappointed, however, since the king himself doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way through the book and our initial impression of him is less than favorable. But trust me, that impression won't last for long.
Much of the book adheres to a style of historical realism I find compelling. At times, unfortunately, it clashes with the overuse of magical elements -- I would have preferred a Gwalchmai who didn't need a magical sword, a magical horse and magical guidance to become a hero. And, oddly, this Arthurian story is packed with sorcery and yet has no Merlin -- I suppose Bradshaw thought we'd be content with Taliesin, chief bard to Arthur and a member of the Sidhe -- nor does Morgan le Fey make an appearance.
The book's only other failing is a tendency to be a little too "talky" at times, wandering far afield as Gwalchmai wrestles with his internal darkness and ponders the nature of Light and religion. But the action, when it occurs, is well handled.
Hawk of May is the first book of a trilogy (followed by Kingdom of Summer and In Winter's Shadow), but it's also a stand-alone novel if you don't feel compelled to follow the saga through to its ultimate conclusion. I suspect, however, that you'll find yourself drawn to finish the set.

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