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The second book of Lyonesse concludes this most unusual variant of the Arthurian legend, based on the folklore of the author’s native Isles of Scilly, off the southwest tip of Britain. It follows up on The Well Between the Worlds, which seemed such an engaging and original work of fantasy that I had read half of it before I realized that the resemblance between its characters’ names and figures associated with King Arthur was more than a coincidence. Now on board with the secret, I read the second half of the tale and met even more familiar characters under a different guise. Amazingly, knowing what I already know from having read several tellings of the deeds of King Arthur and his knights, I didn’t know enough to spoil the plot of this book. I guess you’d have to grow up in the Isles of Scilly to know what to expect. Maybe even then the creative touches added by the author of the Little Darlings series, and of many other novels for adults and children, would be enough to make the story seem new, richly inventive, and full of surprises.
As the story resumes, Idris (better known to us as Arthur) has been forced to flee the land of Lyonesse, where he is rightfully king, only to be attacked by corsairs and fished out of the sea by citizens of the neighboring land of Ar Mor. Idris begins this new chapter in despair. He has lost the sword Cutwater, which he had pulled out of a stone. He believes that his sister and best friend Morgan has been killed or taken into slavery. The future of his kingdom, ruled by an evil regent named Fisheagle and her horrible son Murther, lies heavy on his heart. And now one of his loyal followers, a survivor of the corsair attack, is found clinging to a piece of wreckage, and even with the healing magic of the scabbard Holdwater Idris is helpless to save the man’s life.
But the rescued man’s dying thoughts, and the amazing return of Cutwater, set Idris on a new path. His quest is to travel to Aegypt and rescue Morgan from slavery. If he brings her back safely, he can count on the kings of the neighboring countries to support him in his fight to take back the throne of Lyonesse. Setting off alone, Idris steadily attracts allies until he has half a dozen young knights following him. Through one dangerous adventure after another, he leads them to the very walls of Aegypt: a country where slavery is a grim fact of life, and where vast ancient beings dwelling in pits hold an even more terrible mastery over everyone.
Skipping over a lot of what happens, let’s just say that Idris comes back to Lyonesse more ready than ever to fight Fisheagle and the otherworldly monsters with whom she is conspiring to poison the land. He grows a lot, learns to bear himself as a king, and shows a knack for commanding the loyalty of man, woman, and beast. But the way things are situated back at home, it seems increasingly likely that the fate of Lyonesse will be tragic in one way or another. The only choice seems to be whether its end will be evil or ennobling. And that decision is ultimately up to Idris, a boy on the cusp of manhood, who would have been a good king if only he might have had a country to rule.
So, one thing this branch of Arthurian legend has in common with the main channel is the bittersweet ending, tinged by an indefinite hope for some brighter future. That much you can expect just from the fact that it has characters in it named Tristan, Gawaine, Galahd, Bors, and Lanz. It gets so that there is no point in trying to avoid spoilers, because you’re dealing with a story everybody has heard many times, told in many ways. The difference is what happens along the way to Idris’ (Arthur’s) bittersweet-hopeful destiny. It has to do with hideous alien monsters that hunger for blood, living in a universe full of darkness and poison. It involves a massive conflict between good and evil, defined as those who care about how their choices affect other people and those who do not. It includes narrow escapes, clever capers, a variety of vivid imagination-firing scenery, and a wise wizard who tells a young hero the hard and painful truth.
Many of Sam Llewellyn’s other works involve ships, boats, and settings along the west coast of Great Britain. His titles for younger readers include The Magic Boathouse and The Polecat Cafe. His books for grownups include sailing thrillers and nautical fiction, such as Blood Orange and Hell Bay. He has also written some nonfiction works, including a set of biographical sketches called Small Parts in History, and a phrasebook to different regions of Britain, titled Yacky dar moy Bewty!. Since tales of sails are among my special interests, I expect to read more of Llewellyn’s work in the future—though I have a misgiving that these Lyonesse books may be his most outstanding work.