|Brush up on your King Arthur and Mists of Avalon legends and lore – it will prove helpful as you sort out the various characters in Sword of Darkness. The story begins in post-Arthurian England. Apprentice weaver Seren, all alone in the world, longs to be accepted into the weavers’ guild. She has woven a flawless length of cloth, but it is not sufficient for the guild to admit her (membership having more to do with supply-and-demand than quality, much like the taxi driver medallion system).
As she leaves the guildhall, Seren is approached by two handsome knights who introduce themselves as Gawain and Agravain, names she recognizes from legend. They declare her to be a bride of Avalon and the future mother of the next merlin; they appear ready to abscond with her. She escapes them with the aid of a dark knight. Big mistake. The dark knight, Kerrigan, sweeps her up on his horse and out of her world into the world beyond the veil – Camelot.
Sadly, this is not your Lerner and Loewe Camelot. It is gloomy, gray, black, and evil. Arthur has been dead for 600 or so years and his half-sister Morgan, queen of the underworld, rules Camelot. Morgan molded Kerrigan from a desperate scavenging orphan into a ruthless, evil, and apparently immortal version of Arthur, complete with a magical sword that has a name – Caliburn – and was pulled from a stone. As long as Kerrigan has the sword, he is invincible. He’s bored with eternal life, tired of squabbling with his ex-lover Morgan, whom he cannot defeat, but who cannot defeat him either.
It appears that Morgan has plotted to snatch Seren to keep her from her destiny to birth the next merlin. If Seren were to bear a child by one of the Knights of the Roundtable (now at Avalon, apparently immortal as well), the child would be a “good” merlin. If this new “good” merlin combined powers with the good merlin already at Avalon (named, unfortunately, Merlin – confusing, I know), they could defeat Morgan, a fate she’s not interested in seeing. Morgan, Kerrigan, the good Merlin and leftover Knights, and a host of supernatural characters – real gargoyles, gargoyles-made-from-humans, mandrakes, graylings and Adoni – battle over Seren and her not-yet-born baby.
Is that confusing? Well, the book is confusing, particularly at the beginning. Granted, my knights of the roundtable knowledge comes primarily from Monty Python and Disney’s “Sword in the Stone,” so I’m not the most knowledgeable resource on all-things-Arthurian. If that’s about your level of knowledge, be prepared to be confused, and even annoyed, from the very beginning. Why are Gawain and Agravain alive in London several hundred years after Arthurian times, and why do they speak as if they’re in an episode of Friends? Have they traveled from our time, are they traveling to our time, are they immortal, what? Even though there’s plenty of back-story heaped in, the characters and their assorted roles and powers are hard to keep straight. Although this is billed as the first book in a series, it actually feels like there’s a whole lot of story that happened in a previous book, or is going to happen in a later one, that would really be helpful to know now. But if you can just go along for the ride, it gets much clearer and considerably less annoying.
Confusing plot, however, is not my biggest problem with the book; that would be that there is not a truly compelling love story – it feels completely pro-forma. To be fair, Kerrigan isn’t exactly human, so his lack of emotion and motivation are perhaps understandable. Human Seren, on the other hand, displays a compassion combined with spitfire rebellion quite incongruous with her status as a hostage in an other-worldly hell. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for them to be drawn to each other or – she’s an angel, he’s the devil. He is drawn to her stubborn resistance and doesn’t understand why. She wants to offer compassion and does. Whatever.
In the final analysis, weighing all factors, I remain ambivalent about the book. A fairly interesting world has been created here, and the story was actually captivating by the end. But be warned – the end doesn’t feel like the end, because so much is left unexplained and unresolved. If you make it past the first couple of chapters, be prepared to buy the next book in the series.