Nicola Griffith’s Spear is a brilliant fusion of a number of old legends and ideas, queer yet period appropriate. It features elements of multiple eras of Arthurian lore as well as certain Irish legends. The combined story follows a familiar structure without seeming overly clichéd.
A variation on the tale of Percifal, mixed with legends both traditionally Arthurian and not so closely connected, the story begins with our lead character, a young and strong woman called Peretur, living with her mother. She is given female pronouns by the narrator yet is continuously referred to by male pronounc by almost every other character. Whether this is used to show gender assumptions on the characters’ parts or something more is not entirely clear, although the story manages to not explicitly make Peredur’s gender known.
Still, it is her eating and drinking every day out of a certain vessel that leaves her strong and tall, and soon she feels she most move on to serve the king. As her first interaction from the court is with Cay, notoriously one of the less noble figures in most interpretations, it does happen exceptionally quickly.
The trials of someone attempting to become a knight of the round table is a common narrative. The fact that Nimue is used cleverly in this story, and there is an obvious call back to early Arthurian lore in that she is not strictly antagonistic, and the use of objects like a sword, the grail, and the stone are all similarly clever yet reasonable within the story set. The titular object is something quite clever, arguably hinted at throughout the text yet still absolutely brilliantly revealed.
Like many Arthurian tales, these well-known elements are revealed one at a time, allowing the viewer to be introduced to the setting in the same way the character would logically find themselves learning such matters. Yet even this is subverted, with certain well-known elements appearing earlier than expected or informs very different than might be foreseen.
The prose is breezy without seeming too fast, the characters broadly drawn from, the archetypes that they are used to fill in many Arthurian tales. Readers will likely be able to finish this in a single sitting should they desire to do so.
Interspersed throughout are a series of illustrations by Rovina Cai. These are often stark, yet help to set a raw, mythic feel for the work.
After the text proper come a pair of pieces on the influences and writing of the book. Both of these are fascinating, justifying not only the use of spelling that they did but also the particular bits of folklore and mythology that have been fused together. This includes not only detailed explanations of Nicola Griffith’s logic but even detailed notes as to her sources and thoughts related to the material.
While this particular book is not likely to upend the interpretation of classic tales featuring the characters, it is an absolutely wonderful use of them. Managing to be inclusive yet feel appropriate to the era, wildly inventive and yet completely respectful, it is truly a rare thing to find an Arthurian volume of this quality.