HelenKay: The front cover of Sword of Darkness starts out with a joke. Sherrilyn Kenyon provides a cover quote praising MacGregor’s first book in the Lords of Avalon series. Kenyon and MacGregor are, of course, the same person. Hence the joke. Kenyon explains in her Author’s Note at the end of the book, that the quote grew out of a conversation with her editor. The real question is: when a book begins with a jest and then takes on a legend as strong and pervasive as King Arthur, will the joke be on the reader?
In Sword of Darkness, we step into a world after the fall of King Arthur at Camlann. Arthur’s sister Morgen now controls Camelot with a dark, sinister and self-indulgent presence. The land, once peaceful, now houses demons and darklings. Beside Morgen is Kerrigan, the new King of Camelot – a nasty King. Kerrigan defines evil. For example, rather than eat, he steals the life force of other people (usually women) to survive. He kills on a whim and for the slightest offense. He was a boy no one wanted who turned into the leader of the dark forces after years of grooming by Morgen. His life changed when he removed a sword, Caliburn, from a boulder. The sword no one else could hold, in Kerrigan’s hands became a force of unimaginable power and protection. Kerrigan’s goal is to find Arthur’s infamous Round Table and return it, and the other sacred objects separated and hidden upon Arthur’s removal to Avalon, back to Camelot to work on the side of evil.
As part of this quest, Kerrigan also needs to find Seren, a humble weaver. How he knows that is unclear, but he does. Seren is the mother of the next Merlin – not that she knows that, of course, but Kerrigan and Arthur’s faithful Knights do. Both sides rush to grab her. Kerrigan tricks Seren into leaving with him, insisting that he is the one who can protect her. Also proving that our hero is a liar as well as evil and all other bad things. All but Seren seem to know that she is to bear this magical child. Kerrigan and Morgen want the child to rule dark Camelot. The Knights want her to produce an heir who will return Camelot to its greatness.
Then there’s the part where Kerrigan wants Seren, and Seren wants Kerrigan. That’s the romance portion of the story. Once together, Kerrigan becomes attracted to the young woman he previously found unappealing. She is good and decent and everything else Kerrigan isn’t. Kerrigan warms from the inside out – literally and figuratively since his body temperature of approximately 40 degrees increases – as his feelings for Seren grow. A man who never cared for anyone but himself and the power he could possess turns from hateful and destructive to husband material.
Romance novels thrive on a hope (one could say, fiction) that even the most horrible and cruel of men can be reformed by the love of a good woman. The theory is alive and well here. Kerrigan does grow and evolve. His priorities shift until he must make a choice that changes him – and his world – forever. The notion is romantic, possibly fanciful. One full of hope. One that would play better if the attraction between these two were clear.
For Kerrigan finding a woman who gives unconditionally opens up a world he’s never known. At first he balks at her naivetee. He runs. He grumbles. He refuses to believe. Slowly, Seren wins him over. It is a transformation that strains the imagination – one where a man of pure evil with no heart morphs into a hero. If this weren’t a romance, the change would be unacceptable. Here the shift works on one level because MacGregor does not switch out the old Kerrigan for the new in a short period of time. She allows him to stay true to who he is until he can no longer hold onto the hate.
The problem is Seren. It is unclear why a man of Kerrigan’s world would want a woman he describes as little more than an unattractive peasant. He takes what he wants, but for some reason does not force anything from Seren. From the beginning, he follows her lead and protects her. This likely is meant to show that there still is some goodness left in him. But the plot ends up battling with the budding romance. For her part, Seren’s attraction to Kerrigan is never explained. She wants him…why? Her desire starts contemporaneously with Kerrigan’s kidnapping of her. He threatens and demeans her, and she finds him handsome. The result is that the explanation for the romance on Seren’s part feels shallow. She is good and pure, but too perfect and forgiving. She rarely is affected by the chaos around her and readily accepts all the strange happenings that befall her life. All of this calls into question if Seren is as simple as Kerrigan first believes her to be.
In addition to the bumps in the romance, there are some difficulties in the plot. Along with Kerrigan’s ability to appear and disappear from a room in a poof, is his ability to travel through time. This leads to him carrying knowledge of modern day words, events and inventions. So, in the middle of a conversation about a mandrake or demon, a phrase such as “that sucks” could appear, spoken by Kerrigan or the other magical men in the book. The result is jarring and has a tendency to drag the reader out of the story rather than add a comic edge, as is assumed to be its purpose. The other confusion comes from the varying degrees of power held by Morgen, Kerrigan, Seren and others. As soon as we beleive one of these individuals is invincible, something happens to contradict that point. The back-and-forth chips away at the the plot’s cohesion.
Despite the negatives, Sword of Darkness is a readable story. While there are faults here, there is a drive to hold on until the end and follow Kerrigan’s path to redemption. Unfortunately, that may be the only drive for some.
Wendy: “Kinley MacGregor writes fantasy the way I would,” says Sherrilyn Kenyon on the front cover of MacGregor’s Sword of Darkness. Well, of course MacGregor writes as Kenyon would as they are the same person. The blurb is intended as a joke, that much is obvious even without Kenyon’s end note stating it as such. The trouble is, it isn’t particularly funny or particularly appropriate. It rings less of jest and more of folly and ego. Then again, folly and ego are the only explanations for work that has the audacity to take Arthurian Legend and twist it into pulp that is not only dismissible, but contemptible as well.
Seren of York, a weaver’s apprentice, is to be the mother of the next Merlin. Everyone, it would seem, but Seren knows some sort of destiny awaits her: from the weavers guild members who deny her admittance, to what is left of Arthur’s court, to Morgen le Fey, and the new King of Camelot, Kerrigan. For reasons that are never illuminated, the forces of good (Arthur’s knights) and the forces of evil (Morgen and Kerrigan) seek out Seren at the same moment in time. Seren’s yet-to-be-conceived child will be a powerful enough Merlin to allow Morgen and evil to rule not only Camelot, but the entire world, and Arthur’s knights want to avoid that. When Gawain and Agravain show up on the streets of London (the location is assumed as London is referred to in the last third of the book as Seren’s home, but never identified as the scene plays out) to inform Seren of her destiny and take her back to Avalon, she runs. It is then that Kerrigan appears, his black stead fearsome, his black eyes flashing a demonic red, and Seren leaves the safety of her home (and the good Gawain and Agravain symbolize) for the arms of this unknown demon.
Kerrigan, the new King of Camelot, was once a hapless and helpless boy who, in a moment of need, stumbled upon a sword embedded into a boulder. The sword, Caliburn, the evil twin of Excalibur, is imbued with magic, cannot be defeated and protects whoever wears its scabbard. But, the sword cannot be wielded by just anyone; it takes someone special, someone worthy of its powers to pull it from the rock. Kerrigan, it turns out, is that special person, and frees the sword to command its awesome power for evil.
Kerrigan and Seren leave London (again an assumption on the location) for Camelot. Kerrigan’s Camelot is nothing like the ill-fated perfection of Arthur’s time. Camelot is now ruled by evil, populated by monstrous Halflings and under the control of Morgen—this despite Kerrigan being King. The plot from this point amounts to little. Morgen wants Seren for evil, the inhabitants of Avalon want Seren for good, and Kerrigan just wants her. Though it is interesting to note that two hundred pages into the proceeding, a Celtic god shows up.
The narrative tells and tells and tells, then contradicts itself. Kerrigan has cataclysmic power and is immortal and yet, his power is eclipsed by Morgen’s and he can, it turns out, die. Kerrigan is a creature consumed by the totality of his evil, and yet, he has soft feelings for Seren from the start. The Knights of the Roundtable, Morgen, and Kerrigan have the ability to pop through time, yet not the ability to go back and change or undue events (at least this is assumed when Gawain and Agravain don’t pop back in time thirty minutes before Seren rides off with Kerrigan and play for a different outcome). From whatever time and plane the Knights, Morgen, and Kerrigan exist on, they are completely aware of the future, use future technology and slang, but seem ignorant of how events will play out. For example, Arthur’s knights come from the future to fetch Seren, so why don’t they know Seren will ride off with Kerrigan? Everyone is aware that Seren will mother the next Merlin, but no one knows who the father will be and no one knows that Seren is actually a Merlin herself from a long line of Merlins. The mechanisms of the plot are forced and brushed aside by the author at will.
Between Kerrigan and Seren a romance exists simply because there needs to be one in a romance novel. Kerrigan protects Seren from Morgen at risk to himself…just because. He’s attracted to her though he finds nothing attractive about her. Seren feels safe with Kerrigan despite his repeated pledges to kill her and declaration about wanting to rape her. These characters come to care for one another on paper because they are supposed to as hero and heroine, not because there is anything special or redeeming about either.
Arthur and the tales of his knights aren’t protected by copyright laws. Anyone can take Lancelot and Guinevere (or any of the other characters) and write a happy ending for them or send them to the moon, or make them president of China. Even Thomas Mallory, the author of Le Morte D’Arthur, is widely believed to have culled and collected the tales from French sources. All that said, having the legal right to use Arthurian legend doesn’t mean it should be done. In the case of Sword of Darkness, it should not have been attempted.
HelenKay’s Question: This book tackles the legendary tale of Merlin, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Camelot and adds a new chapter. Are there any legendary tales romance authors should avoid tinkering with, either because what came before is so ingrained and beloved, or because what came before can’t be made better?
Wendy’s Answer: Yes, all of them.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: A compelling hero toppled by an inconsistent plot.
Wendy’s Final Thought: Sword of Darkness is pointless.
You can visit Kinley here and purchase this book here and here.