After slogging through the ghastly "Queen of the Summer Country" and the beautiful but rather whiny "Guinevere," I was beginning to wonder if anyone could actually manage a good story, containing a semi-intelligent Queen Guinevere with honor and integrity, a tight plot, and a good writing style. Then I got my hands on a copy of "Dawnflight." Kim Headlee delves into history and humanity to produce a realistic (but not painfully so) story, something that you can envision actually happening.
The story centers around Pictish chieftainess Gyanhumara. When Roman forces defeat the armies of Caledonia (Scotland), Chieftain Ogryvan heads a general signing of a treaty with the Brydain lords - and among the conditions is that Gyanhumara must marry a Brydain noble.
The chief seeker of Gyanhumara's hand is Urien, who finds her attractive and is attractive somewhat himself. However, he is annoyed by the relatively emancipated manner of Gyanhumara, who is as comfy on the battlefield as in a hall full of ladies (more so, I thought). Gyanhumara is disgusted by his plans to tame her down, but in the interest of peace for her people, she agrees.
Then she meets Arthur, the Pendragon. With his questionable background, Arthur is not really acceptable as a potential husband for Gyanhumara, under the treaty. But the moment they meet, they love each other and, importantly, Arthur does not want to change Gyanhumara in any way. He intends to marry his beloved even if it causes conflicts -- but can she choose between her love and spirit, and the uncertain fate of her people?
Perhaps it's the author's excellent outlook toward Arthurian legend -- passing by religion, nationality, status, mythic background -- that causes her to do such a stellar job creating Gyanhumara as a strong, intelligent heroine. Her portrayals of the characters and politics of the time are excellent (as far as I can tell, I know virtually nothing about the clashes of the time) and the descriptions of fighting are easily-envisioned.
Too many supposedly strong heroines in Arthurian literature fail, becoming preachy and irritable. Gyanhumara thankfully doesn't fall into that trap, remaining a believable young woman who has simply been raised as an equal and excellent counterbalance to the strong men around her. I like the idea of Merlin's relationship to Arthur in this book, as I like Arthur himself. Too often, as Guinevere is seen as a slut, Arthur is seen as a wimp; fortunately, he's the young warlord he's expected to be.
Headlee's descriptions are more filled with metaphors than usual; "No nectar was as sweet as the joy of winning" is my personal favorite. The descriptiveness is slightly lower than I am used to in an Arthurian novel, but nevertheless it gets the images across.
Overall, this gains the label of "classic," simply for being the one Guinevere novel that portrays her as a real person. Bravo, Ms. Headlee!