[This post may be triggery for references to rape and suicide. Beware of spoilers.]
I actually finished this book a few days ago, but I wanted to give it some time to stew a bit while I wrote my review of Neolithic Shamanism.
As you probably know, I have this thing for Arthuriana, although I confess I’m not well read in the old Arthurian romances, but I like modern Arthurian fiction, and I especially like modern Arthurian fiction with Pagan-y and particularly Goddess-y things and I like Arthuriana with queer characters.
Why yes I very much enjoyed The Mists of Avalon, thank you for asking.
Anyways, so I basically had a choice between this book and Guenevere: Queen of the Summer Country, but I read the preview of the latter and didn’t like it, and it didn’t have gay Mordred.
Ergo, Mordred, Bastard Son was the way to go.
In case the title didn’t tip you off, the main character in Mordred, Bastard Son is Mordred, King Arthur’s bastard by Morgan, who he raped. The book is about Mordred’s childhood growing up in Broceliande, where the old Pagan customs survive and the people worship the Goddess in the form of the Lady of the Lake. Oh, and Mordred is gay, this is important.
And that’s….pretty much all I can tell you. The book is rather short, at 260 pages, and it definitely feels like it could have been the first part of a much longer book, but instead, it’s going to be a trilogy.
Basically what you have in Mordred, Bastard Son is your typical coming-of-age plot. When he isn’t crushing on his best friend (who doesn’t return his affections), Mordred spends time either learning from his elders or complaining that he’s not a man yet and how he lusts after a mysterious hermit who lives near the lake, oh, and how he can’t have sex, because men can apparently only learn certain magic if they are virgins.
It sounds kind of boring, typical, but Clegg makes up for it, in my mind, with delightful prose and some interesting takes on familiar characters. This is one of the few books where I thought the dialogue was pretty well done. The words had a way of flowing into each other and kept my attention so that I kept reading. As for the characters, this is probably the first Arthurian novel I’ve ever read where I liked Merlin, who is both very human and very extraordinary at the same time. Other characters of note include Lukat, Mordred’s friend, Morgan herself, Mordred’s aunt Morgause, Viviane, Mordred’s great-aunt and honored Elder in the community, who lost her legs during a battle with a boar of supernatural origin, and Anthea, three sisters who worship a Hecate-like goddess and are very creepy, without spoiling anything, Clegg does something very interesting with both Morgan and Morgause which perhaps explains why the two are often conflated. Arthur himself does not directly appear in the story, but there is definitely a sense that he is present through the lives that he has touched, and Mordred can’t seem to figure out how he should feel about his father at times.
Let’s talk about common tropes in m/m fiction, specifically the phenomena of the Woman Who Ruins All Relationships. It is unfortunately very common (especially in m/m fiction written by heterosexual women) for there to be a woman who somehow gets “in the way” of the main couple (either by being one love interest’s girlfriend or pursuing one of the pair). This character usually ends up dying or is otherwise removed from the picture.
Mordred, Bastard Son plays with this trope in the form of Melisse, who is interested in Lukat (who returns her affections). Mordred is, of course, crushing on Lukat, hard, so he does become a bit jealous…..
….and then he mentally slaps himself, reminding himself that he has absolutely NO REASON TO HATE HER AT ALL and is genuinely happy for the two of them, and while she does (spoiler alert!) end up dying, it doesn’t serve as a magical springboard to jump start Lukat’s relationship with Mordred.
This is because Lukat is, you know, heterosexual.
It takes Mordred a while to come to terms with this (a feeling that, as someone who has crushed on people with incompatible orientations, I can relate to) but eventually he does ;learn to accept that however much he and his friend with they could love each other in that way, it’s an impossibility. I would say it both plays straight and subverts the trope, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide how it plays out.
Mordred goes through childhood surrounded by women. There’s his mother, who is nice enough at first but whose personality takes a sharp downturn into depression and, yes, a couple of suicide attempts. Viviane is a respected Elder who thrives in spite of her disability (she’s carried to wherever she needs to go), Morgause is a bit more fiery with a ton of dirty jokes at her disposal, and the Anthea are creepy, creepy witch women who are seriously creepy. Creepy. One last note I will make is that it seems as if Clegg has set up one of these characters (you can probably guess who) as the main antagonist for the rest of the trilogy, and she is, in my opinion, the kind of antagonist where you understand why they do something but disagree with how they go about doing things.
Besides the book’s length, Mordred’s wangsting became quite annoying sometimes, and at times how magic worked was a bit confusing. I would have really liked it if the book had been longer and branched out a bit from Mordred’s childhood, but I like where it ended and will be eagerly awaiting the next installment. In short, if you’re interested in Arthurian tales with queer protagonists….why haven’t you picked this one up yet?