This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend. Read the full disclosure here.
We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “Spear” by Nicola Griffin
Publishing Info: Tordotcom, April 2022
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound
Retelling/Re-imagining: “Legends of King Arthur”
Book Description: The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.
And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.
I’ve mentioned a number of times on here that I am not super versed in some of the more classic European literature tales, and that extends to Arthurian legends. I think that the adaptations I have seen all the way through are Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone”, which is more about Arthur getting the sword and not much else, and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which is, of course, near perfection. But it’s not like an absurdist comedy with holy hand grenades and killer rabbits is going to reflect Arthur in all his significance. So going into “Spear” I didn’t really know what to expect, as I have a vague working knowledge of some aspects of the source material, but not much. And I’m sorry to say that while I went in trying to be open minded, “Spear” wasn’t my jam. I just kept thinking about coconuts and John Cleese slaughtering people in ridiculous ways and wishing I was watching that again.
So there were some things I liked about “Spear” and that was mostly in the ways that Nicola Griffin tinkered with the characters and the canon. Whether it was having main character Peretur be a gender bent version of Parzival during his quest with the other knights for the Holy Grail. I liked Peretur’s queer relationship with Nimuë, I liked that Arturus (Arthur), Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and Llanza (Lancelot) were in a loving thrupple as opposed to being in a dramatic love triangle, and I liked some of the ways that Griffin explores themes of the Grail and the magical bits of it. But there was so much I struggled with. The biggest issue I had was the writing. It is VERY lyrical, and very detailed, and I had initially picked this book up in print form but threw in the towel VERY quickly and opted for audio. My thought process was that I would be on a couple road trips to Duluth before book club and could use that time to listen, as I’ve had success in the past with that if I find the writing tricky. But it didn’t really help this time. And I think that had I had more investment in the Arthurian source material I would have been more vested in engaging, but since I don’t know it very well I found this book to be a tricky read, bordering on a chore. I am inclined to believe that this is probably a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation, but it just didn’t click with me.
Fans of King Arthur and very purple prose writing styles would probably connect with this, but it wasn’t for me.
This was an interesting read for me. On paper, it has a lot of things I really enjoy. I’m fairly familiar with King Arthur legends, but mostly through a strange smattering of exposure to various retellings and adaptations and my own internet rabbit holes of research. I’ve only looked at a few of the “original” legends, themselves. All of this to say, when I picked up “Spear,” I was able to tell right away that this was going to appeal to the big fans of these stories. And that comes to the second thing I typically enjoy: lyrical writing. From the very first page, this is what stands out the most about this book for me. The writing is dense and poetic. There were many times that I found myself having to re-read long sentences to piece together exactly what was being said. As a fan of lyrical writing, I’m used to this experience to some extent, but even for me, I found this one a bit more challenging that I would have liked. That said, I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am with Griffin’s ability to match the tone of the “original” King Arthur legends. For the big fans, this book will feel as if it can be neatly slotted right in alongside those, as the style of writing and storytelling found here match so well to those.
It’s also clear that Griffin has done her research. For such a short novel, it’s truly impressive just how many details and references she manages to pack in there. As a fan of Juliet Marillier’s, an author who largely relies on Irish folklore and legends, I enjoyed seeing some of these tales and beings woven in throughout this story.
I also really liked our main character and her story. I had a few concerns early on when she showed hints of being a bit too unbelievably good at certain skills with no explanation, but luckily there did turn out to be good reasons for this. I also enjoyed the gender-swapping of her character from male to female and the various changes and additions that Griffith brought to the story. Overall, I did find myself struggling to read this one more than I had hoped (the writing is hard), but I do think that it will greatly appeal to hardcore King Arthur fans.
Kate’s Rating 5: This was a bit of a slog for me, as I couldn’t connect to the writing style and I know very little about King Arthur lore and legend.
Serena’s Rating 8: For me, personally, this was probably a 7. But I rounded up to an 8 for the true Arthur aficionados who will appreciate the meticulous and detailed work that went into creating this story.
Book Club Questions
- How familiar are you with the legends of King Arthur? Specifically, how much did you know about the various iterations of Percival?
- Did you like the gender-swapped approach to this story? How do you think this changed or impacted the tale as a whole?
- The writing in this book is very in line with the style found in many of the more traditional Arthur stories. How did this impact your reading?
- How familiar were you with the various Irish legends and folklore that wove in and out of this story?
- This is a novella, so it has a reduced page count from a typical novel. Did this seem to fit the story we have here? Would you have liked it to be longer or shorter? And if so, why? Were there parts you wanted to know more about or could have done without?
“Spear” is on these Goodreads lists: Amazons, Valkyries, and Warrior Women and Sapphic Retellings.
Next Book Club Pick: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher