Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.

And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

Publication details: 19 April 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5


Spear was one of my most anticipated books of 2022, despite the fact that I’ve never read any of Nicola Griffith’s other works (because of, really; a shiny new book is always the best way to get me into an author, at which point I know I will then dedicate myself to their backlist). I also really love Arthurian myths. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a lyrical story about Peretur, a Welsh girl with an uncanny connection to nature, who sets out on a quest to find her true self. The highlight is definitely the prose; it’s rich and ethereal, much like the main character herself. Griffith smartly blends inspirations from the original text (of note, this story adopts the relatively free-form structure of ancient ballads), with more modern language that brilliantly creates a sense of time and place. Spear feels a lot like a fine, hand-knitted garment; the finished piece is smooth and faultless, but you can also sense the amount of time and effort that went into every word.

The story itself is a simple one, but it’s easy to get swept up in Peretur’s adventure. For those looking specifically for a queer retelling, it’s both an important part of the story and just another part of Peretur’s life; the women she loves shape her story, but she certainly doesn’t give a lot of thought to examining her sexuality, which is want for the time period. Spear does suffer a little from the fault borne by many of the Arthurian legends – Peretur’s magical gifts do make her a little too perceptive and skilled at times to really connect with, despite Griffith’s best efforts to hone in on the challenges she faces in her emotional journey as a counterpoint – and some of the side characters are very lightly sketched. But those are my only real complaints in an otherwise wonderful story.

There’s a very extensive author’s note at the back (it made up about 10 per cent of the e-book ARC) where Griffith’s talks about her research into Arthurian Britain and the wide array of myths and stories about Peretur (known under various names) that influenced Spear, and which made me appreciate the care with which this story was crafted and told even more. Though my favourite part of the author’s note is this comment that: ‘… for me, historical accuracy also meant that this could not be a story of only straight, white non-disabled men’, because it’s straight to the point but also sums up Griffith’s efforts to draw upon the widest possible understanding of the Arthurian legends: both as they originally were, and as we re-interpret them in our modern world.

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