Review of Queen of None by Natania Barron

By Paul Jessup

Before we go any further, I have a few things to get out of the way that might temper your response to this review. Yes, this website is affiliated with Vernacular Books, the very same who published the book I am reviewing. And yes, I also have a book coming out from that same publishing house next year. Some may worry that these affiliations taint this review, but I assure you, I am too old and too crotchety to let something like that stop me.

If I dislike something, I will tell you about it. If I like something, well, then this old greybeard is going to shout it from the rooftops. With all of that unpleasantness out of the way, let’s move on, then, shall we? Tally ho, sally forth, and onto the review!

Queen of None is one of those books that is in conversation with the history of the fantasy genre as a whole, even conversing with that primal foundation of the Grail Quest and myths of Camelot. While some authors are content to argue with, extend upon, and play with the Tolkien foundations of fantasy, Barron goes right to the source. She plays with Arthuriana like a master craftsman uses clay. She molds it, and wields it expertly, pulling up hidden gems and turning things inside out and on its head.

Her work is not just in conversation with these legends. Her work uses them to have a conversation with our current society, using them to dismantle and reveal the oppression inside the everyday. Her work reminds me most of Tehanu in this aspect. Like Tehanu, it is a feminist critique of the foundations of a genre and a myth. And like Le Guin, she knows her subject matter exceedingly well. Fantasy, and the legends of Camelot (or Carelorn, as it is called in this book- an older, Welsh version of the name that dates back to Geoffrey of Monmouth) are a second home to Barron. This is not to say you need to be an expert in the Matter of Britain, as it were, it just means that this book has so many layers to view it, and think about, and discuss.

Like a multifaceted prism, it shows us so many different things. Like, Tehanu, again, for example, with a mother as the main character, and a prose so poetic and sharp that it could cut you if you weren’t paying attention. Like Le Guin, Barron knows the difference between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Another prism is Anna’s arrival at the court of Carelorn, where there is schemes and webs of deceit and the Machiavellian politics of books like Game of Thrones. Where this book differs is its feminist approach, and how it investigates and tears down the myth of great men.

This is where the book truly shines. It uses Carelorn as a lens to see our own world. One of the most brilliant things is her approach to Merlin. Merlin, who is shown in most adaptations to be some kind of flawed hero who works behind the scenes. Merlin, whose scheming is shown as a great man who creates history for the better of the world. And even though Merlin fails, in most books he is shown as some tragic hero. Oh, woe is Merlin! He tried to make a better world.

Not so in Queen of None. It’s interesting, because her view of Merlin and his actions is far more true and realistic when you actually sit down and think about it. Merlin’s scheming is the destruction of everything. His behind the scenes finagling isn’t one of a genius fixing the world for the better, but instead a conniving power hungry wizard who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Even if that means destroying everything.

And what Barron does with Nymue, and how she’s used…

Oh, I don’t want to give any of it away! But it’s absolutely perfect. The imagination on display is top notch, and what happens not only fits into the original legends and myths, but does it at such a fascinating slantwise way that you will never look at Nymue the same way ever again.

This book is fantastic. Barron has written a masterpiece of modern Arthuriana. This is the Tehanu of our times, a classic deconstruction of the very bones of the myths of Camelot and the entire fantasy genre as a whole. Inspiring as it is heartbreaking and beautiful, this will turn out to be one the founding stones of a new, feminist fantasy canon. And I cannot wait to see the legacy it leaves in its wake.

Categories: Book Reviews

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