The Fourth Gwenevere has married Arthur, the Great Duke of War, to cement the truce between the peoples of the Island of the Mighty and beget a son who will be overlord of all… but Arthur has been assassinated, which is going to prove very awkward indeed. Now that he’s gone – though many doubt he’s really dead – the petty kings of Britain are jockeying for position, all seeking to marry the Gwenevere and take Arthur’s place. Then the Gwenevere is abducted and Morvran, King of Gwent and Arthur’s chief fixer, undertakes to find her and return her to salvage the future of Britain, for only he has the wit to unravel the Byzantine plot before the Saxons declare war…
The Arthurian Legend that we know and are familiar with isn’t exactly something that you’ll find here. The book takes a different approach to simply being a standard retelling of Arthurian myth & legend, with classic moments such as the Sword in the Stone not featured here. Instead, this is about life after Arthur, a period that’s received much less attention. So although The Fourth Gwenevere is very much an Arthurian novel, although it adopts a different approach from what most people will be familiar with. Case in point, Gwenevere herself. Only, there’s something different. As the title suggests, there have actually been for people to bear the name Gwenevere, all wives of King Arthur. In particular, this one focuses around the last person to bear the name, at an unfortunate time when Arthur has been slain. It’s something that gives the book a unique feel and allows for an interesting addition to the Jo Fletcher line-up, of which the publisher has not disappointed so far with some very strong stories indeed. If you haven’t read anything from Jo Fletcher then you’re really doing yourself a disservice, because there are multiple good titles that the publisher has to offer and this book is very much one of them.
James’ writing style will take a little getting used to at first, especially if you’ve just come off an entirely different novel, with the tonal switch taking a while to get used to, especially if you’ve just finished a novel that was entirely different (for example, the previous novel before The Fourth Gwenevere for me was Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – which was a whole different beast entirely). But eventually, once you’re settled in and familiar with his approach, then you’ll have no problem with the rest of the book. It’s fresh, witty and imaginative, and once you can get over the relatively slow start it moves along at a fairly gripping pace.
The narrator isn’t a famous face from legend (or at least, not as famous as the likes of Lancelot and Arthur himself) and this is a wise approach from James as his version of Arthurian legend is somewhat distorted to what we’ve come to expect. Arthur was a good king and a leader of men, yes – but being a king in a country at peace isn’t his strongest suite as he was very much a ruler who thrived on war. Our main character is Morvran, a King of Gwent, who carries the book very well indeed with his first person narrative. The book also includes multiple interludes as well that are executed strongly, but won’t detract you from the overall narrative.
John James uses humour to great effect here, and whilst sometimes poor humour can throw you off a story altogether, James makes sure that The Fourth Gwenevere is very much entertaining. It’s not a fully blown comedy but neither is it entirely grimdark, and this is because of Morvran’s narrative, which also manages to be both strong and gripping in equal measure.
This novel then, is another strong addition to the ranks of Jo Fletcher Books. John James has crafted a wonderful, different and unfamiliar take on Arthurian legend and although it may take some getting used to, otherwise remains a pretty awesome read that comes recommended.