The Cleaving by Juliet E McKenna – Book Review (spoiler free)

The blurb

Four women, four destinies – the future of King Arthur’s court…

A new, feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends. The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.

The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?

As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.

Juliet McKenna is an expert on medieval history and warfare and brings this expertise as well as her skills as a fantasy writer to this epic standalone novel.

The review

I love historical fantasy.


Why? Why has this genre such a grip on my heart.

I suppose I love how the fantastical and magical can be woven into human lives. Almost as if the magic is true and attainable.

Arthurian legend is one of the founding stories of the genre. Set in dark age England, with historians believing there is some truth to the tales, the name of Arthur and Merlin is ingrained into English folklore and history. In these tales magic sits alongside history in much the same way that Merlin stands beside Arthur.

In The Cleaving, we have a different perspective on these legends. Through the eyes of Nimue, we see how the lives of Ygraine, Morgana and Guinevere were impacted by the stories we already know. Magic, sorcery, jealously, adultery. We know what happened, but not from their perspective.

Set firmly in the courts of England, the woman must live within the social constructs of the time. We have no warriors nor assassins. We have women who sew, manage their households and talk.

But life at court is precarious. War looms often as the different tribes of Britain vie for supremacy and Uther Pendragon and then his son, Arthur, strive to hold it. But how and at what cost?

Magic certainly has a cost as Nimue well knows, and as such must be used seldom. However, using magic is a slippery slope which Nimue discovers. She strives to help the women in her life, but often finds even magic cannot save those she loves.

I really enjoyed having the female perspective on the Arthurian legends – and especially enjoyed the interactions with the magical people in the forests who seek to keep magic hidden.

Thematically, this novel ponders what it is to be a woman during a time of war. I think fans of Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls will find much to enjoy here. It also feels like a work of historical fiction in terms of stylisation which was nicely done and reminded me a little of Katherine by Anya Seton.

I believe this book to be a serious piece of work by Juliet E McKenna – and I wouldn’t be surprised if readers in literary circles find this book too. Juliet E McKenna is a beautiful writer and weaves her story effortlessly.

Also… that cover!! What a beauty!

Thanks for reading!

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