The Lost Queen (The Lost Queen trilogy #1)
by Signe Pike
Published September, 2018, by Touchstone
Though scholars and armchair historians have spent centuries debating the historicity of the stories of King Arthur and his knights, no one has ever nailed down historical figures who can be decisively called ‘King Arthur’ or ‘Merlin’ and serve as the definitive source of a millennium’s worth of stories. This does not stop scholars and others from theorizing and diving down rabbit holes of research to find an answer, and the murkiness of the historical record of post-Roman likely ensures that we will never know for sure if there was a real King Arthur.
And so people have developed pet theories that they will defend to the death, and others will write stories based on those theories, as Signe Pike has done with The Lost Queen, the first installment of her take on the Matter of Britain. The Lost Queen is centered on the story of twins, a brother and sister growing up in a rapidly changing world. The old pagan beliefs are being supplanted by Christianity, and every year, Angles from across the sea come in droves, marching deeper and deeper into British territory, even as the kings of Britain are at odds with each other. From childhood, the twins– Laguoreth and Lailoken– are aware of these changes and of their uncertain futures, and both are determined to carry on the traditions of their people no matter what.
But while Lailoken is able to go and train to be a Wisdom Keeper (essentially a Druid), Languoreth is destined for marriage– to the son of a Christian king. And while she has the Sight and knowledge of herb lore, she is forbidden to study with the Wisdom Keepers. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a girl who is as clever as her brother and has the same warrior spirit, but it’s not the only hardship she’ll face, as she finds love with a man who is not her husband, and faces Christian monks doing everything they can to hasten the end of the old ways and their sacred places. Languoreth may have a deep well of inner strength, but learning how to apply that strength wisely is another matter altogether and is a problem that will plague her throughout most of the book.
While the synopsis makes the story out to be about Lailoken and how he grows and changes from a clever boy into an immortal legend, the narrative is centered on Languoreth and is told exclusively through her point of view- at ages ten, fifteen, and then at thirty-two. Each section interweaves what is known of the politics and battles of the kings of Britain and the land now known as Scotland with the earliest of the Arthurian legends– such as those of the battles against the invading warlords Hengist and Horsa. Beneath the politics, though, and beneath the legends we still talk about today is the story of a young woman who is both imprisoned by the conventions of her time and made powerful by her knowledge and ability to influence the lords and kings around her. It helps that Pike does not fall prey to the narrative traps that other historical fiction authors have fallen into; her characters have a depth that makes them feel real. They are not shallow caricatures expressing one personality trait or another. Pike makes her characters nuanced within the boundaries of their society, instead of trying to make them feel more modern, as though readers are incapable of understanding characters from another time and place.
But good historical fiction does not require its protagonists to have modern ideals in order to be relatable. Languoreth’s dilemmas may be straight out of the sixth century, but her efforts to protect her family and to find a space for herself within her society’s expectations are not so strange. The past may be a foreign land where they do things differently, but people have always been people. Languoreth’s struggle to retain her family’s beliefs in the face of great change is a struggle people throughout the centuries have dealt with. She need not be a stereotypical Strong Female Character in order to be a memorable woman.
Pike’s ‘lost queen’ may be a figure cobbled out of legend and murky historical details, but she and her world come to life in the pages of The Lost Queen. Thanks to its atmospheric world building, complex politics, and nuanced characters, it stands above the majority of its peers. There are many Arthurian retellings out there, but few of them feel as real or are as memorable as The Lost Queen.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lost Queen”
Fantastic! I can’t wait to try this one. I’ve not read all that many interpretations of the tales of Arthur and Merlin, mostly just watched the various movies. But I have read T.H. White’s take, which was very different than I’d expected, a bit more whimsical. And I’ve read and enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. It also had a different perspective than I was used to from the movies. The Lost Queen sounds like one I’d enjoy, and with a different perspective equally new to me. I enjoyed this review!
The Lost Queen reads more like historical fiction, and if you didn’t know some of the characters like Ambrosius Aurelianus and the older names for characters like Uther Pendragon, you might not even know it was Arthurian. What I liked about it was that Pike didn’t try to make her characters modern figures in costume. They really feel like they belong in the sixth century. hope you enjoy the book!
Confession: Despite reading your review (twice!) I have no idea what part of the Arthurian legend this book is inspired by. As if you needed more proof that I don’t know enough about these legends. Ugh. Where does one start to learn about them? Is The Once and Future King truly the best place to start?
So the story of Lailoken is from what is now southern Scotland, and it’s thought by some scholars that Geoffrey of Monmouth took those legends and combined them with some Irish and Welsh legends to develop the character of Merlin (Welsh ‘Myrddin’) before he was ever associated with King Arthur. I think most scholars now believe that the Merlin stories came primarily from Wales and not from Scotland, but Pike’s story uses the assumption that Lailoken, thanks to battles and deaths I won’t spoil, became the white-bearded character of Myrddin later in his life.
The Once and Future King is a good place to start (it’s where Disney’s Sword in the Stone came from), and so is Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, the Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, followed up by The Wicked Day, which is from a different POV). They’re some of my favorite books, and the audiobooks are great, too. BBC’s Merlin is a fun show involving a lot of Arthurian tropes and stories (with lots of flaws that you just have to overlook). It streams on Netflix. A lot of people recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, but I find it to be a bit of a one-note kind of story overall because pretty much to a one, her Pagan characters are good and her Christian characters are bad. It’s billed as a ‘feminist King Arthur’ story. There was a mini-series based on it from the late 1990s, and it’s terrible.
I could go on and on, but I find most of the stories I’ve come across to be ‘meh’ in one way or another. But if you want more recommendations, I have them.