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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Bright Sword

Lev Grossman

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To purchase The Bright Sword

Title: The Bright Sword
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Novel
Written: 2024
Length: 674 pages
Availability: The Bright Sword - US
The Bright Sword - UK
The Bright Sword - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Novel of King Arthur

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Our Assessment:

B- : builds on a promising mix of Arthurian legend but doesn't run with it nearly far enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 12/7/2024 Lisa Tuttle
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 16/7/2024 Kiersten White
Publishers Weekly A 25/4/2024 .
The Washington Post A 16/7/2024 Elizabeth Hand

  From the Reviews:
  • "The result is a lively, gripping new epic in which the dreamy magic of the medieval romance is refreshed and made newly relevant for today." - Lisa Tuttle, The Guardian

  • "(R)esoundingly earns its place among the best of Arthurian tales. (...) The book is long, more than 600 pages, and it feels long. The story meanders, but other than a few back story chapters that are, if not unnecessary, perhaps mistimed, nothing feels superfluous. This is a narrative that demands and rewards patience. (...) We didn’t need to know what happened after Arthur died, but Arthuriana is far richer for the fact that Grossman, like countless storytellers before him, couldn’t let the dream of Camelot go." - Kiersten White, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) breathtaking tale that honors past iterations while producing something entirely unexpected. (...) Grossman does a remarkable job of pulling together these disparate strands while providing enough combat and magic to keep the pages turning. Epic fantasy fans will hang on every word." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Grossman’s take on the Arthurian legend may lack the grandeur and tragic gravitas of White’s classic The Once and Future King, but he excels at colorful characterizations and vibrant action scenes, which are legion. Like White, he uses humor liberally and masterfully (...). And he gets in more scenes of genuine strangeness (.....) As Grossman’s splendid, offbeat quest reaches its conclusion, we see Arthur’s waves of Saxon invaders and their many predecessors refracted in a different light, one that helps illuminate our own tumultuous, battle-torn age in the way that only the best epics can." - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Presented as 'A Novel of King Arthur', the legendary figure does loom large in The Bright Sword but does not actually feature prominently in person for much of it; indeed, when the novel's central character, young Collum, reaches Camelot and its Round Table early on he finds only: "the d-dregs of Camelot. The last battle's been fought, all the best died" -- including, apparently, King Arthur himself, killed by his illegitimate son Mordred. Only a handful of the knights of the Round Table survive, a motley crew that include Sir Dinadan -- born a woman, but always certain s/he was a man --; Sir Bedivere, born with only one hand, homosexual, and one of Arthur's first followers; and Sir Palomides the Saracen, a Muslim (avant la lettre, Grossman explaining in a Historical Note at the conclusion of the novel that, while: "I stick to the facts wherever possible", he did take some liberties (well: "I've played fast abnd loose and wholly irresponsibly with history")); Palomides': "helmet was a turban sculpted in steel". (These are figures familiar from Round Table legends, but Grossman adds to and embellishes their backstories.)
       The Bright Sword does not unfold entirely in the then-present day, as it has sections and chapters focusing on episodes from the past, recounting the histories of a variety of the characters and how they wound up at King Arthur's court as well as some of King Arthur's own story. The main figure is, however, Collum, from the Out Isles; like Arthur and many of the knights he had a difficult youth, a bastard child raised outside his family. He had learnt to fight well, and: "At seventeen Collum was tall, ungodly strong, virtually ambidextrous, and terrifyingly quick on his feet, with the shoulders of a stevedore and the delicate hands of a goldsmith" -- and fled Mull for Camelot and what he hoped was a higher calling.
       The knights don't immediately shoo him off, and he slowly becomes one of them -- eventually also completing a rather demanding initiation challenge that makes him a full-fledged member of their group.
        From the first, Camelot finds itself threatened: with the king dead -- and his not having produced an heir -- the question of succession is thrown wide open, while others look to take advantage of the situation and the leadership vacuum to win over lands and power. There is still a Roman hangover in much of the country -- with not-quite-knight Scipio an authentic holdover -- and the tensions between pagan and Christian figure prominently throughout -- as does the question of what the hell God is up to, and why he doesn't offer an easier, clearer path. And, while Merlin is ... more or less out of the way, magic, in its various forms, often comes into play -- along with fairies and other otherworldly creatures, not to mention a whole Otherworld, as well as the in-between world of Avalon, 'the Fortunate Isle'.
       Among the issues the knights have to deal with is whether Lancelot betrayed Arthur by sleeping with Guinevere. The two have each retreated entirely from public life, but eventually they too are drawn back into the fray.
       There's fighting -- simple jousting as well much more serious actual combat --, questing and all sorts of adventure, and quite a few mysteries and open questions, including ones related to the fates of some of the characters -- is Arthur still alive ? -- as well as their identities -- just who is Collum's father ? Teenage Collum, often feeling in way over his head (but ultimately always remaining determined), is, like many of the characters, understandably befuddled about much that is going on; an encounter with Morgan le Fay, "queen of the fairies", has her sum up his (and the) general situation:

     You are not who you think you are, and Britain is not what you think it is. I return you now to Camelot. Your disaster is already in progress.
       The knights feel a sense of duty, but without Arthur have their doubts about it all, wondering from early on:
And even if they did try, would it really be worth it ? Dedicating their bodies and souls and lives to trying to put back together what could only be an imitation of Arthur's world ? But what else could they do ?
       The quest becomes one not for the Holy Grail but for the Holy Lance, and it's not an easy one either. Excalibur comes into play eventually too ..... And, along the way, Grossman fits in and embellishes familiar Arthurian legend with episodes from the past, chapters that explain the backgrounds of some of the other significant characters -- not least Nimue, who apprenticed to Merlin (and whom Collum takes a shine to) -- and events in which they, as well as Arthur, figured.
       There are some decent adventures here, and a kind of progression -- but it's a halting one, both because of the blast-from-the-past interruptions as well as because the story doesn't so much wends its way forward as leap and shift, often haphazardly. On the one hand, the backstories of the significant characters are interesting -- but Grossman then does too little with these in the main story; the fact that the novel is so crowded with characters of course doesn't help. There's also the problem of the arbitrariness of the fantastical -- all sorts of magical beings and the like have various powers and abilities, but there's not much rhyme or reason to these, and they seem rather randomly tossed in. (Those who read fantasy-fiction regularly may be more receptive to and accepting of this than I am; I have to admit to having little patience for this kind of stuff, especially when it's not at least a bit more grounded in some reason -- and even then, deus ex machina should be much more carefully dosed in any fiction. (Possibly greater familiarity with Arthurian legends would make this stuff more palatable ?))
       The Bright Sword feels rather flabby, both because of the padding of the chapters looking to the past as well as the pace of much of the adventure -- more like a trot or an often somewhat aimless gambol than the gallop one might hope for in an adventure-novel. Much of the narrative is pulled between explanation and action, with Grossman also somewhat uneasily balancing between inhabiting and respecting the familiar Arthurian world and his own world-building. Aspects certainly are of interest -- the lingering Roman influence, and the changesd that are coming with the Saxons, for one, as well as the tension between pagan and Christian beliefs -- but it all gets spread a bit thin; going for epic sweep is commendable, but The Bright Sword never entirely settles for or commits to being one kind of epic or another, resulting in a somewhat unsatisfying mix.
       There are some fine set pieces -- the scenes of Collum in extremis are generally very good -- but for rather too long stretches, The Bright Sword also tends towards the dull. Grossman strikes some good notes -- "They weren't so deep in the Otherworld that the sun didn't set" -- but too often turns to the fantastical for the next narrative leap.
       Neither large-scale nor simply quest-story-driven enough, The Bright Sword is a modestly entertaining but -- despite its heft -- minor addition to the Arthurian canon.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 June 2024

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The Bright Sword: Reviews: Lev Grossman: Other books by Lev Grossman under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Lev Grossman was born in 1969.

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© 2024 the complete review

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