by Gillian BradshawFirst published 1981. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4022-4072-0. 329 pages. Advance review copy supplied by publisher.
Kingdom of Summer is the second in Gillian Bradshaw's Arthurian trilogy, sequel to Hawk of May (reviewed here). The story still revolves around Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain in the later legends), though it is narrated by his (fictional) servant Rhys ap Sion. Many of the characters are figures from the legends, including Morgause, her husband King Lot of Orkney, their sons Gwalchmai and Agravain, Morgause's illegitimate son Medraut, Arthur's knights Cei and Bedwyr, and Arthur himself. Maelgwn Gwynedd, historical king of Gwynedd in the early to mid sixth century, appears as a secondary character*. The central character, Rhys ap Sion, and an Irish servant girl called Eivlin are fictional.
Rhys ap Sion is a freeborn farmer, peaceably working his family's land near the River Severn. When a wounded warrior, Gwalchmai ap Lot, seeks hospitality at the farm in a bitter winter, Rhys feels drawn to him and goes with him as his servant to Arthur's stronghold at Camlann and then on a diplomatic mission to Maelgwn Gwynedd. There Rhys encounters Gwalchmai's sinisterly beautiful mother Morgause and suave brother Medraut, not to mention their attractive Irish serving girl Eivlin. As Rhys learns more of the dark secrets haunting Gwalchmai's past, he comes to realise that the schemes afoot threaten not only Gwalchmai but Arthur's kingdom itself.
Fantasy is less dominant in Kingdom of Summer than in Hawk of May, a plus point for me. Gwalchmai still has his magical Otherworld sword and horse, and supernatural duels and healing miracles feature in the plot, but for me the strongest aspect of the novel was the interplay between the characters. Apart from Morgause, who is evil incarnate (as expected from her role in the previous book), everyone has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Gwalchmai is at first sight the ideal hero of legend, brave, courteous and near-invincible in battle, but he is haunted by his not-entirely-honourable treatment of a woman several years earlier, and he is endearingly hopeless at practical matters such as obtaining food and shelter. Agravain is a complete contrast, brash, arrogant, inclined to casual violence and not given to thinking if he can help it, but also likeable in his ebullience. Medraut is a contrast again, charming, subtle and persuasive. The conflicts between the three Orkney brothers are sharply drawn, and test Rhys's loyalty to Gwalchmai.
Rhys himself, as the narrator, is a central character in the novel, and the tale is as much his as Gwalchmai's. A hard-headed farmer - both literally and figuratively - he is rather out of his depth in the world of warrior honour and Otherworldly weapons, and his down-to-earth common sense is both a support and a contrast to Gwalchmai's rather abstract concerns. The Irish girl Eivlin is a delight. Her first line, on being asked where she got that kettle, is to reply, "A hen laid it in the rafters, having been affrighted in a coppersmith's shop", which sold me straight away. In her own way, she demonstrates as much courage and loyalty as any of the warriors.
There are two distinct plot strands, Gwalchmai's search for the woman he wronged and Morgause's evil schemes to destroy Arthur and all he stands for. The first is resolved - although there is, I think, scope for it to reappear - and the second is clearly setting up for a climax in the last book of the trilogy. I shall be interested to see how it plays out.
There's a sketch map in the front for anyone who is unfamiliar with the geography of Arthurian Britain, although not all the place names are marked and Less Britain appears to be placed in modern Picardy and Normandy rather than its more usual location in modern Brittany. The ARC has no historical or author's note, although there may be one in the finished version. Not that it matters greatly, because the Arthurian legends have been told and retold so many times that they have near-limitless scope for interpretation.
Second in an engaging fantasy trilogy retelling the story of Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) of Arthurian legend.
*Although Maelgwn is dated to the early to mid sixth century (died in 547), I'm not sure that Kingdom of Summer is intended as set in the same period; Maelgwn may have been displaced earlier in time to make him contemporary with Arthur's heyday. The author's note for Hawk of May commented that 'the novel is only partially historical', so chronology is not that important.