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Some time ago, I read “Queen of None” by the author Natania Barron. As a huge Arthurian legend fan, I must say, it was a true delight.

Barron, in her novel, elects to tell the story of a relatively anonymous and seemingly inconsequential figure in the folklore of the Once and Future King: the sister of Arthur, called Anna. Anna faces the tribulation of being – while the only full-blooded sister of the king – little more than a pawn in dynastic marriages for her brother.

Anna suffers through loveless, cruel wedlock to King Lot of Orkney, which has been strategically arranged by Arthur, so that Arthur can inherit the land of Orkney upon Lot’s death, assuming Anna outlives her husband. During the course of the marriage, Anna bears the famous Gawain, her oldest son, and two twins, Gaheris and Gareth.

But Anna harbours a deep love and passion for the knight Bevedere, one of Arthur’s most trusted advisors. Meanwhile, Arthur’s greatest counsellor, the omnipresent Merlin, casts a Machiavellian shadow over the king’s court, controlling all, including Arthur, and ultimately Anna.

Upon the death of Lot, Anna is hoping to finally find happiness as wife to Bevedere. But thanks to Merlin’s scheming, Arthur has other plans. He proceeds to betroth Anna to his favourite champion, Sir Lancelot. But Arthur has additional designs on Lancelot, and Anna finds herself once more, ignominious, and at the mercy of seemingly anyone’s wishes but her own.

Determined to break free of her chains, and believing the manipulative conjurer Merlin holds the key to her fate, Anna beings to dabble in the latent magic she knows she has always possessed, in order to defeat Merlin. Her banished Aunt Vivyan provides a book of spells, that Anna uses to try and overcome her curse, as per Merlin, of being born to be forgotten, and fading into obscurity, as a queen who gave up her throne, and became, as per the title “The Queen of None”.

Barron populates her book with many of the familiar and popular faces of the mythology, including Lancelot, Morgan, Guinevere, Merlin, Nimue, and more. She paints them with a unique flair, full of pathos, contradictions, and unflinching realism.

The plot is slow, concerted but never plodding. The reader will be ensnared by the court politics, romance, and mystical elements of Barron’s tale. Anna is fiery, witty, and determined MC, who feels she has done her duty, and now wants to be able to chart the course of her own destiny. She is tired of being treated like a brood mare, and being at the mercy of the men in her life. Surviving in an entrenched patriarchy, Anna refuses to give into the dominance of men, as do many of the female characters in the story. They find unique ways of asserting themselves, wielding power, and making themselves heard, and relevant. The female characters were definitely the strength of the narrative. They exude courage, intelligence, and most of all heart.

I am stricken, dazzled, by Barron’s prose. It’s just the kind of writing I love to read. Consider the beauty of the following passage, as Anna describes Carelon (Camelot), and that the exterior beauty of the place belies what actually lurks beneath, indicative of a court full of secrets, intrigue, magic, and all not as it seems:

“Perhaps Carelon was one of the greatest wonders on the face of the earth; I do not know; I have seen so little of it. But know this: such beauty came at a price, for every arch and line, every flapping banner told the story of people who lived and died under them; the common people, the workers, the servants, unseen mothers and daughters and courtiers who do not find their way into the songs…it was a cold drafty place in the winter, and unbearably hot in the summer months. There were more mice in the walls than people between them…I am sorry there is less romance in the description. But Carelon, even glorious Carelon, was like a polished quartz, embedded in the ground: if you could turn it over with your heel, all sorts of creatures would scuttle out from beneath, dark and deprived of the sun.”

Barron spins an intimate, spellbinding, first-person narrative, full of lyrical prose, mesmerizing characters of lore, especially strong women, and a unique perspective on the Arthurian sagas, in which portrays a voice unheard, far from powerless, and determined not to be forgotten, and who – as was predicted – makes her presence felt.

Resoundingly, an exceptional book, and a five-star read!

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