Review by Lisa Glass.
If you've ever wondered if King Arthur and Camelot were real, then Here Lies Arthur could be for you. But you'll have to forget all you think you know about Arthur, because this book turns everything on its head. This story is gritty and realistic, and Arthur is not your average hero - he is a brute of a man living in the sixth century. He's not a cold-hearted schemer, but he has a nasty temper and he murders those standing in his way without a second thought.
However, Arthur is not the main character: Here lies Arthur is the story of Gwyna, a girl in the service of Myrddin - who is the storyteller and myth-maker in Arthur's war band. Gwyna spends half of the novel dressed as a boy, pretending to be Gwyn, since the war band is apparently no place for a girl, and Myrddin is only allowed to employ male servants.
Gwyna learns to be male, she speaks up and laughs loud. Instead of the girl who went unnoticed by everyone, she learns to walk tall and make her presence felt. Gwyna only regrets her 'boyhood' when she is forced to go to war. The battle scenes she witnesses are gory and frightening – Philip Reeve does not pull any punches. Yet despite her aversion to the violence in the lives of men, when Gwyna is required to become a girl again - thanks to adolescence - she finds it very difficult to acclimatise to the quiet (and boring) ways of women. The brilliance of having Gwyna as the main character is that she is uniquely placed to observe both the male and female spheres of sixth century society, which makes her story even more fascinating.
There is also an interesting message about stories. Gwyna sees Myrddin's myth-making first hand and she comes to understand how people want to make sense of the world around them, even when they know the tall tales aren't really true. Gwyna herself becomes part of certain legends, simply by participating in Myrddin's tricks. The power of stories is an important idea and I found myself remembering all of the legends and myths that were told to me as a child, as well as questioning many of the notions that are 'spun' even in the twenty-first century.
The style of writing is lyrical and beautiful, but quite 'literary', although I must admit I loved that element. If I had any criticism it is that I couldn't always suspend my disbelief. I was so in awe of Reeve's rewriting of the Arthur myth that I kept cross-referencing things in my own mind and contrasting Here Lies Arthur with what I thought I knew. The fact that the Arthur legend is so famous got a little in the way of me enjoying this purely as a story. In terms of characterisation, however, the book is brilliant and Philip Reeve establishes himself here as an exceptional writer.
I am torn between giving Here Lies Arthur four or five stars. I would read it again, definitely, because there is so much that I know I have missed. However, the not-quite-ringing-true element was a minus. Can I give it four and a half stars? [Luisa note: We don't have a category for it, but... go on, then! :) )
Also see the Guardian's review.