Spear by Nicola Griffith

(pretty major spoiler)

I decided to read Nicola Griffith’s Spear after presenting a short list of novellas to decide between to some friends and getting a unanimous vote back. People really like Spear it seems.

Me, I had some pros and cons. Pro – it sounded very mythic. Con – it was a retelling and retellings are something I’m even pickier about than other books. Pro – Percival/Peredur is one of my more favourite Arthurian stories. Con – the pickiness increases with Arthur. Pro – lots of people think Nicola Griffith is a big time talent.

As for why novellas, I’d decided part of my slump was how long it had been since I’d read a book I really loved. Novellas, reasoned I, gave the best odds of hitting that jackpot quickly.

Anyway, that’s about all the meaningful shit I knew. Like to enter books blind, remember? A friend did remark after I announced my decision that it was heavy on the lyricism and light on the psychological interiority, but that was about it.

I very quickly got that. Spear’s opening is lush and beautiful, a sheer ode to a wilder almost unreal time. It has a sense of place equal to none, up there with Rosemary Sutcliff. It reminded me also of Tolkien and McKillip and Tanith Lee and every other fantasist who has sought to recreate myths rather than build modern stories off of them.

That sense fades a little as Peretur (the version of the name used here) leaves the valley and goes adventuring. I was enjoying myself but a little confused at how supernaturally adept she was at everything until I twigged.

She was supernatural. An old school Celtic superhero among unwitting everyday Romano-British warriors. Captain America among an army of Hawkeyes.

And as Peretur blitzed through the book in super easy barely an inconvenience mode, it felt less like a myth and a lot like a straight up power fantasy. I like power fantasies, but they need some bite. I got none. When musing about this with a friend, they said they’d been told it was heavy on the vibes and light on the tension, which is spot on. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more with those expectations?

Then I wondered whether I’d have felt the same if it was a power fantasy about a man, then I wondered whether I’d read a power fantasy this powerful about a man. It’s like Conan without the pyrrhic victories and sense of unfulfillment. I’d compare it to Sparhawk who also romps to victory, but Sparhawk gives up his power at the end of the book, rather than keeping it and stripping it from others. I’m sure there’s some I’m forgetting, and different ways of viewing it, but it’s definitely up there. I don’t think I’m being sniffy, I just don’t think it delivered the tension I was expecting and felt too over the top.

Which isn’t the end of the world. But it can be a difference between great and good and for me, that’s what happened. Spear started as a book that made me think I’d hit that jackpot, and ended as just a fun read. I recommend it, and I know a ton of people who liked it more than me, but it wasn’t the slumpbuster I was looking for.

Maybe it would have been though if I’d known what to expect though. Who can say.


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