Saturday, 1 August 2015

Book Review: Gwendolyn's Sword by E.A Haltom PLUS Author Q&A

Read: July 24 - 26    Verdict: 4 Stars

I received a free digital copy from the author/publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest feedback.

Gwendolyn isn't like many married women of 1193. In the reign of King Richard, and in the midst of Prince John's rebellion, Gwendolyn carries a sword and knows how to use it. She has been left in charge of her estate by her husband Robert while he fights alongside King Richard.

Now, Gwendolyn has no idea if her husband is still alive and her horrid sister-in-law is intending to strip her of her land and title and take it for herself. On top of this, Gwendolyn's been told that she is a direct descendant of King Arthur and she is destined to received the famous sword Caliburn. Gwendolyn must find a way to save her estate and perhaps she can use her destiny to do so.

I immediately warmed to Gwendolyn. She was fresh, free-thinking and didn't let a man tell her what to do. Despite many historical fiction novels having beautiful, strong women in their own right, many of these characters are still very much confined by what their husbands allow them to do. With the absence of a husband and a title of a Lady, Gwendolyn was able to do what she liked - most of the time. I very much thought her similar to Disney's Brave's Merida with her fearless attitude and long-red hair. I also put her as the 1193 poster woman for the very famous 'We Can Do It' poster. Gwendolyn had a sword and she definitely knew how to use it.

Gwendolyn's Sword wasn't bogged down with a lot of historical information and I feel that because of this, it would be a good book for anyone wanting to read historical fiction for a change of scenery or would be a good book for someone starting out on the journey of historical fiction. All the facts were told in a way that fit very well into the story and there was never a time I was bogged down. As people entered the story, Gwendolyn normally quickly explained who they were in a way that didn't take away from the atmosphere of the scene.

Gwendolyn is also the type of character that her personality sees the good in people, and she ends up with a nice little fellowship around her. William and his unwavering loyalty (and possibly love?), Nigel who also ends up being a great asset, Michael and Ella. The funny thing was that I never detected real romantic feelings between William and Gwendolyn - it was very much trusted advisor and lady. I actually much preferred the idea of Robert coming home and wooing her off her feet.

This was an action-packed feminist adventure, and I loved every moment Gwendolyn proved her might to unsuspecting men. And I have a feeling there's a lot more to come!

Questions and Answers with E.A Haltom.

Q: What attracted you to the legend of King Arthur and Caliburn?

A: Today, heroes are supposed to be flawed characters, to make them more human and accessible, and I get that. But I think we still need to also have heroes who are almost too good to be true, who inspire us to greatness and who show us what tremendous courage, kindness, strength, and sacrifice look like. King Arthur's tale has endured so many centuries and captured so many hearts and imaginations, I was hopelessly drawn to it.

Q: Why did you decide to base the story on a female descendant in particular?

A: Because no one else had yet. I think there's something very powerful in being able to see yourself, even a tiny bit of yourself, reflected in a great hero's tale. Growing up, I was acutely aware that all of the examples of heroes I had access to were male. Every single US president had been a man. All of the generals and explorers and inventors we learned about were men. I was raised Catholic, and even in the church women could not be leaders, and there was a specious rationale about the weakness and spiritual frailty of women that went along with that. As a child it was obvious to me that there was a huge bias working against women, even though I didn't know then that women had been systematically excluded from universities, from politics, from business and industry. When I looked at all of the leaders and heroes I had available to me, none of them were someone I or any other girl could aspire to be. I had the wrong anatomy. As a girl, I didn't count in the cult(ure) of heroes. Gwendolyn's Sword is my small contribution to adding a narrative of a heroic woman to the larger ethos of heroism.

Q: Is Gwendolyn based or inspired by a real person in your life or in history?

A: Not anyone in particular, but there are aspects of people I've known or come across in all of my characters.

Q: It's not often you read a book that has an absence of a romantic entanglement? Was this a conscious decision you made for Gwendolyn?

A: Absolutely. It was 110% deliberate. This is a hero's tale, first and foremost. I think there is an expectation, any time the main character in a story is a woman, that her romantic life is going to be a central part of her story. But that's not true to how women live their lives. We have dreams, ambitions, worries, ideas, and plans that have nothing at all to do with who we're sleeping with or not sleeping with. When the main character is a man, this kind of story is normal; you don't find yourself wondering who he'll hook up with and how he'll handle that and how it will alter his life's course. But when the main character is a woman and you tell her story the same way as if she were a man, suddenly the absence of a central romantic theme is conspicuous. I find this fascinating, and I'm enjoying exploring it and seeing how readers respond to it.

Having said this, there shouldn't be an assumption that Gwendolyn will abstain from entering into a sexual relationship in the sequels. My first priority is to stay true to her story, however that progresses. With strong female characters, there's a tendency for them to be either hyper-sexual or virgins. These are two sides of the same coin, the idea that a woman's sexuality is a central and defining characteristic. I want to avoid that cliché altogether.

Q: William and Mogh are pretty magical people. What kind of research did you do to help you write these characters?

A: On the magical side, I've long been interested in things that we experience that we can't explain. I've had a few of those experiences myself, and I think a lot of people have and don't discuss them openly because they don't know how the person they're talking to will react to it. With William and Mogh, I tried to keep the magical aspects of their experiences just to this side of plausibility. In some ways Gwendolyn serves as an important foil to voice all of our skepticism. For research I read about Celtic mythology and Druids, but the Druids didn't document their beliefs or practices in a way that has survived in the historical record. Everything was oral and memorized, and the basic initiation to become a novice took twenty years--clearly there is a lot there that has been lost. One of the best contemporary sources on the Druids, unfortunately, is Julius Caesar, their conqueror in Gaul. And we all know how fairly and accurately conquerors record the cultures and traditions of the peoples they conquer--it would be reasonable to assume that Caesar was biased in a negative way toward the Druids. So I drew on my readings of American Indian beliefs and view of the cosmos and nature, and also from the writings of Carlos Castaneda, who had a lot to say about sorcery and witchcraft as a real and factual phenomenon. It's not authentic "Druid", but I couldn't achieve that authenticity unless I could figure out how to bend space and time and go spend several years with them. It's important to note, also, that the 12th c. pre-dates the Church's attacks against perceived witchcraft and witches. At this point in the Church's timeline, believing that sorcery or magic could exist was itself considered heresy; it wasn't until later that the Church made an about face and said, ok, there are witches, and it's our job to eliminate them. In the same way, the separation of "rational" and "magical" or "natural" and "supernatural" hadn't really occurred yet, either. The ancient Greek writings were making their way to England in Latin translations, but the world in general still presented itself to the people of the time as a mysterious, unpredictable, and what we would now call "magical" place. Writing from this perspective in a way that was true to the contemporary worldview was extremely challenging, and there were times, for the sake of the story, that I had to bring a more modern perspective to both William and Mogh.

Q: Can we hope to see more of Gwendolyn? And will we ever meet Robert?

A: As it stands now, it looks like we will see more of Robert. And Gwendolyn's story is just getting started. I feel such an obligation to finish the trajectory of her arc. I am reading Joseph Campbell and some other sources on the hero archetype, but her story is truly her own. Gwendolyn is such a strong character, she's like North on the compass, showing me the way. I have spent several years with her in my head already, and she has so much more to do and say before she's done. I'm having a lot of fun being the first person who gets to see where her story goes.

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