What if Camelot was a land not of magic and nobility, but rather a kingdom of political manipulation and very flawed people? And what if it had more than a few parallels to contemporary history? This is the setting for The Camelot Papers, Peter David's behind-the-scenes look at what would become the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The framework for The Camelot Papers are the recently-discovered journals of Viviana, a slave whose keeps a journal of her day-to-day activities in Camelot. For Viviana, Camelot is filled with perils. Initially they come from the brutish king Uther and the animosity of Rowena, who runs the kitchens. Things become more complex -- and potentially dangerous -- as Viviana becomes an observer of, and sometimes participant with, the rulers of Camelot.
Arthur seems nice, but also forgetful (and sometimes stupid), and he is ill-prepared when Uther is poisoned and Arthur is suddenly king. Merlin is a behind-the-scenes manipulator who continually plots and plans -- and who has Arthur's unquestioning trust. Guinevere finds herself reluctantly married to Arthur and sees him as a way to advance her own agendas. (She's also more comfortable wearing mannish clothes than the dresses expected of a queen.) Guinevere's sister Morgan seems nicer than most and more affectionate to Arthur than his queen -- but could Morgan have her own secret interests? Modred, Morgan's adopted son, is a creepy little boy who seems to appear and disappear from the shadows -- and he is a creepy manipulator in his own right. Lancelot is a mighty warrior, a lecherous womanizer, and a man with his own secret. And there's the filthty, mute stable boy who catches Viviana's interest. All these characters seem very far removed from Gawain, Viviana's ideal and imagined embodiment of the best of the knights.
The Camelot Papers is an intriguing look at the potential reality behind the legends of Camelot. Viviana is the ideal character to report on what happens, whether she's forgotten about as an "unimportant" servant or spying on the characters through the castle's secret passages (which are also traveled by Modred). She also grows as a character, going from someone interested in surviving to trying to improve things for others: the people she knows, and later her whole country. While Mr. David makes the parallels between the past and present a little heavy-handed towards the end of the book (including a war based on faulty intelligence, with no foreign support, to avenge an attack on a parent and with the spectre of a hated opponent who is never seen used to justify torture and atrocities), his does an excellent job creating a web of political intrigues. He also makes it easy to imagine that these very human characters could wind up inspiring the Arthurian legends that we all know now.
From the cover of The Camelot Papers, I expected a Monty Python-esque romp through medieval legend. Instead, we get an outsider's view at the inner workings of a kingdom where legends were born -- from politicians maneuvering and plotting.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch