Book Review: The Guinevere Trilogy, by Lavinia Collins

cover of Day of DestinyI have a love/hate relationship with Lavinia Collins’ Guinevere series.   I loved that I couldn’t put it down and I loved the fact that Guinevere is a whole, complicated, pretty messed up person.  I also hated it the fact that Guinevere is a pretty messed up person, because I was so frustrated with her, although I enjoyed seeing Kay call her out on it.  I like that she is able to love more than one man fully and the critique of forced monogamy.  If any problem could be solved easily, it would be Guinevere’s, given that she would thrive in an openly polyandrous marriage.  I also hated it that Guinevere is so so selfish and frankly so, so dumb on so many occasions.  She is so drunk with love and fueled by frustration at her limited role that she careens around wreaking havoc while everyone says to her, “Hey Guinevere, you want to tone it down a bit?”

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  This series has covers that initially I regarded as simply dreadful and now regard as thought-provoking (except Book 2, which simply dull).  The first book, The Warrior Queen, features a naked Guinevere (I assume) leaning on, or possibly emerging from, a tree.  On the Amazon page, her bosom is artfully covered by strategically placed type.  Other versions don’t include the type, which can be a bit startling.  Behold:

cover of Warrior Queen

Why?  Why is she hanging out in the woods semi-nude?  Is she actually emerging from the tree, like a woodland faerie, or is she just tired?  It’s not that I object to hanging out in the woods semi-nude (although I have to say – BUG SPRAY, people!)  it’s just that it doesn’t connect in any way to the story.  Guinevere has lots and lots of sex in this trilogy but I don’t recall her hanging out in the woods shirtless.  I don’t think the cover matches the content, but I did think that this post by author Lavinia Collins, about the double-standards regarding nudity, is thoughtful and interesting.  She points out that Amazon insisted on the “modesty panel” for the shirtless female, but had no problems with this shirtless male on the cover of the second book, A Champion’s Duty.  I have the same problem here on WordPress – I have to show the Amazon version cover to remain PG-13 as a blog but I can show off Lancelot’s naked torso with impunity.  Here it is:

cover of A Champion's duty

This is your basic, bland, erotic cover of a guy who looks sort of angry and sort of stoned and very wet.  While the first cover is weird and gratuitous, at least it’s creative, interesting art.  I prefer it to the bland quality of A Champion’s Duty.

I actually love the cover of the third book, The Day of Destiny, but again I don’t think it relates much to the book.  Here you go:

cover of Day of Destiny

Those of us in science fiction, fantasy, and romance know all too well that the cover of a book does not necessarily reflect the quality of the book, and this trilogy is far better than the covers suggest.  It has enough explicit sex to qualify as erotica but it also has plenty of plot.  Guinevere is forced to marry Arthur when he conquers her father’s lands as part of his early days of kingship.  Arthur is a loving husband and Guinevere returns that love.  Initially Arthur welcomes her into his war councils and as a soldier in battle.  When she is wounded in battle, Arthur concludes that he can’t bear to have to worry about her and against her protests he sends her home.  This marks a rift between them and sparks a deep frustration and resentment on her part that never heals despite their reconciliation after the battles end.

While Guinevere’s love for Arthur is warm (they have very comforting sex), her love for Lancelot is blindingly passionate.  It’s fueled by lust and also by Guinevere’s need to rebel, to take some kind of control over her own life.  She is told by an unreliable source that Arthur sleeps with other women while away at war and she believes it because no one expects a king to be monogamous.  Being banned from war, she refuses to be banned from sex with whoever the heck she wants to sleep with.

This aspect of Guinevere was the one I related too.  She’s bored and she’s trapped and she’s lonely and she’s all, “Fuck it, I’ll sleep with this hot guy because it’s my life, yo”.  She wants to be a warrior queen, and for a while she’s allowed to be just that, and then she’s banished to being a piece of furniture.  No wonder she wants some autonomy.

What bugged me is that she’s so freaking self-centered.  She can’t seem to grasp that there is an entire kingdom which will be totally ruined if she can’t control her libido.  She pressures Lancelot when he says no (I did enjoy the gender reversal, in which she is the initiator of a sexual relationship).  She’s callous towards others, including her lovers.  She can’t see or doesn’t care that all these acts of personal rebellion don’t get her any further towards self-determination but they do hurt a ton of people.

I’m confused about why this series is marked as a romance series.  A romance novel carries with it the promise of a happy ending – and not just a happy ending but one in which the primary couple will end up together.  If you know your King Arthur lore, and most of us do, it’s not a spoiler to say that Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot do not end up practicing open love in Avalon while dining on cake.  It’s a tragic romance series, it’s an erotic series, and it’s a love story, but it’s not a “romance” series and it drives me crazy that it’s marketed as such.

Overall, I enjoyed this series – certainly I read it avidly, although that was partly because I was trying to figure out how the author would pull a happy ending out of this particular hat.  I was frustrated by Guinevere but I also enjoyed having a main female character who is neither passive nor perfect, and I loved that the author was sufficiently aware of Guinevere’s flaws to have Sir Kay point them out frequently (I adored Sir Kay).  I’d grade this series as a B- with a strong mileage may vary component.