By The Light of Camelot
J. R. Campbell and Shannon Allen
EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing
I should begin this review by stating that By The Light of Camelot isn’t usually the kind of title that I would normally seek out and read and then review. While I was vaguely aware of Arthurian myth and legend beforehand, it was really only in the vaguest sense, based on the odd, scattered snapshot from childhood: King Arthur, Lancelot, Excalibur, the Round Table, that Disney film from when they were still traditionally animated. A subject of mild interest, at best, and therefore not something I would have sought out as the topic of a novel or, as in the case of By The Light of Camelot, an anthology of Arthurian short stories and poems. I primarily requested a review copy of the collection from EDGE because one of my favourite authors, William Meikle, had a short story in it, and at the time I was reviewing a lot of his titles as part of my blog’s #MeikleMarch month. So when I was sent a link to the review copy, I really wasn’t sure what I would find – certainly not one of the most original and engaging fantasy anthologies that I’ve ever read. That was definitely a surprise, and a most pleasant one at that.-
Edited by J. R. Campbell and Shannon Allen, the anthology contains a total of thirteen short stories and pieces of short poetry, making it a relatively short collection, but one that therefore has a focus on quality over quantity. The cover art and accompanying lettering is absolutely gorgeous, royal-blue header and footer framing a fantastic painting of Arthur’s sword Excalibur as the fabled ‘sword in the stone’, a beam of sunlight illuminating it; and the lettering is entirely complementary, especially the ‘C’ in Camelot which has been styled in the manner of a tapestry. Unfortunately I’m not aware of the cover artists or lettering artist, but they have done a first-rate job that provides the reader with an excellent idea of the theme of the anthology.
Turning to the contents of the title itself, the collection opens with an introduction written by J. R. Campbell. Now, usually, at best I’ll skim-read these introductions and get right to the stories within an anthology; it’s often been my experience that the quality of introductory pieces can vary wildly, occasionally being informative, often nothing more than a summary of the stories contained within the title and the details of the authors, sometimes with an exhortation to leave a review or read other associated titles from the publisher. In this case, however, I found Campbell’s introduction to be that rare beast (fittingly enough, thematically) – short, concise and to the point, while also being an informative and thoughtful rumination on the nature of the Arthurian mythos, and what it means to write stories set within it.
Short poems by Jane Yolen and Shannon Allen bookend the anthology, and in both cases are enjoyable pieces that set the mood for the anthology. The first story, Brannen and the Raven by Fiona Patten, is a deeply atmospheric piece with some excellent characterisation and pacing, as a young boy – the youngest in a family that has been constantly visited by ill-fortune – summons the courage to rescue a trapped Raven from a rising tide. But having done so, he finds that the Raven is no ordinary bird, and is soon engaged on a quest that could see his family’s misfortune resolved if the right choices are made. I sympathised with Brannon, unfairly cast into a situation that should not have been his responsibility, and the story was consistently paced and with an intriguing ending.
Loyalty of a Thousand Years by Wendy N. Wagner was one of the stand-out stories in the anthology for me. Surprisingly set in the modern day, it follows a maintenance man called Boris who is actually far more than he seems – and much, much older than he appears. Like many of the stories in the anthology, it drew upon many of familiar themes in Arthurian mythology – courage, honour, loyalty – but Wagner uses those themes in an incredibly engaging manner; she deftly portrays a man almost adrift in time itself, who only has the notions of loyalty and honour to cling onto, and uses the story to question the very fabric of those notions and what they actually might mean after a hundred, even thousand years. A surprisingly touching piece as well, it alone justifies purchasing the anthology.
An excellent counter-point to that story is The Terrible Knitter by Simon Kurt Unsworth; Unsworth is an author I have been aware of for only a short time, but already his writing skills and imagination have deeply impressed me. Here he provides another tale of loyalty, of a Knight of the Round Table desperately trying to find his place in a world that has fundamentally changed. The idea of setting the story in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest was a brilliant idea, because it provides a natural fracturing of social, cultural and political conditions that would cause someone like a Knight to become disenchanted with the world, and Unsworth does a brilliant job of showing Sir Dysig’s gradual, yet almost inevitable, descent into despair, leading to a surreal ending that might either be the result of Lovecraftian machinations, or Dysig’s mind finally coming unhinged.
House of the Knight’s Nail is another brilliant piece this time from R. Overwater, involving two orphans and the machinations of the wizard Merlin as King Arthur and his men fight a desperate battle against a foe that seems almost impossible to beat. Overwater has a good command of prose and characterisation, and I enjoyed following the travails of Mathie and her brother Oswin. Sir Tor and the River Maiden by Colleen Anderson is an intriguing and rather challenging story; at the beginning, it seems like a relatively simple quest story, with a Knight tasked by the titular river maiden to undertake a seemingly impossible task in order to receive a reward. But Sir Tor has a secret that he tries to hide, and as the story progresses that secret is slowly revealed, with a surprising ending that challenges the notion of gender roles and belonging.
Moving towards the end of the anthology, I also liked J.R. Campbell’s contribution, Ghost Child, which was a fast-paced story that successfully melded the Arthurian and ghost story genres together in a story where, even at the very end, I was still guessing as to the fate of the eponymous Ghost Child and her companions. William Meikle is always a promising contributor to any anthology, and once again he doesn’t disappoint, providing us with The Root Of All Things, which sees a Knight of the Round Table urgently searching for a missing Merlin in an attempt to bring back together a fractured Camelot, only to find out the true cost of choosing between following duty, and following the heart. The closing story is an incredibly strong piece, and an excellent choice with which to end the anthology. Shadow of the Wolf from the pen of Diana L. Paxon begins with a wolf being chased by a brace of hounds through a mysterious forest, but suddenly, and effortlessly, pivots into a story about love, betrayal and the meaning of honour and loyalty. I genuinely didn’t see the many twists and turns in the story coming, and as a bonus the tale is a form of Alternate History, taking place in a world where Arthur’s descendants were unable to keep the country from splitting into a number of squabbling fiefdoms that are easy prey to invaders from the north, and from overseas.
A hugely enjoyable anthology, based on a genre that I would never have otherwise visited without being offered a review copy, By The Light of Camelot is a fantastic collection of short stories and poetry that entertains, enthrals and more than justifies its (minimal) price tag. It is a credit to both the editors and the publishers, and I can only hope that we see a follow-up anthology before too long.