Stories of King Arthur have been told and retold for over a thousand years, hashed and rehashed until they have barely any originality left. Modern authors may twist the setting and the characters (generally speaking, they daren't touch the plot), but it's still, at the core, the same story.
Suzannah Rowntree understands this, and she uses it to her advantage. Pendragon's Heir does not reinterpret the legends; rather, it goes back to their heart and reminds us why we loved them in the first place.
In order to do this, Rowntree crafts the story around a new rendition of an old character: Blanchefleur. You haven't heard of her. She's a minor character from Chrétien de Troyes' TheStory of the Grail, where her name is mentioned (I believe) once. In addition to this relative newcomer, Pendragon's Heir heavily features the beloved canon of Arthurian characters: Arthur and Guinevere, Gawain and Ragnell, Morgain and Mordred. All familiar characters, all interacting in new ways. Take Guinevere, for example. No one likes Guinevere-- Mallory didn't; modern culture doesn't; Tennyson really, really didn't. Rowntree acknowledges everything that makes Guinevere unlikable and-- well, I can't say more for fear of spoilers. But Rowntree was so, so good to this poor character.
Although she writes intriguing characters, Rowntree's talent really shines in her prose. Although sparse, it is deliciously full, skilled, and elegant. My highlighter almost ran out of ink trying to keep track of my favorite passages. Miss Rowntree can throw the most delightful punches with dialogue-- places where a perfectly crafted, poignant phrase literally catches my breath.
To rephrase everything that's good about this novel: it is a delightful tribute to everything I love about the Arthurian legends.
That being said... I need to talk about the plot. I wish I was open-minded enough to like Rowntree's somewhat irregular pacing and plotting, but I'm not. Like the Arthurian legends, the plot consists of many isolated incidents, and they gradually thicken and draw together to a cohesive finish. Although I appreciate this artistic choice, I couldn't help but feel that this discontinuity led to a lack of character motivations. Blanchefleur must guard the Grail. I understand it's important, but why her? Perceval comes to a dinner party, and suddenly everyone can speak Welsh. Pendragon's Heir lacked something to draw a series of occurrences together, and that something very easily could have been the villain, who had a relatively low word count in the novel.
Despite my issues with the plot and pacing, I really enjoyed Pendragon's Heir. Rowntree says that she sought to examine what the medievals believed, and I think she succeeded.
Above all, Pendragon's Heir reflects the higher struggle of morality. I have read some reviewers complain that the villain's decidedly less romantic, less idealistic plan seems much more practical than that of the heroes. These reviewers often mention that the villain poses several hard questions of how the heroes' ideals would last in reality; they argue that the characters, and thereby Rowntree, fail to answer this.
I disagree with this opinion because I believe that there silence is the answer. These are not easy questions. There are not always answers. But even when they can't put their necessity into words, the characters follow these ideals simply because they are worth fighting for.