46) Alex Epstein — The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay
Note: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.
Young adult novel about what happened to the sorceress Morgan le Fay between the point in her childhood when her father was murdered by Uther Pendragon, and her return as an adult to trouble her half-brother King Arthur. The book opens at the council of war amongst the Romano-British leaders where Uter (as it’s given in the book) first sets eyes on Ygraine, wife of Gorlois. Uter wants Ygraine enough to make war on Gorlois, enough to seek the aid of the magician Merlin — and with the death of her beloved father, the child Anna finds herself sent to exile by her mother for her own safety. An exile so complete that she must change her name and tell almost no-one who she is when she arrives in Ireland. A safe place with a distant relative proves less than safe when the tribe loses a battle with its neighbours, and Morgan spends years in slavery, learning a little magic openly from the village wisewoman who owns her, and a great deal more magic in secret. Then there is escape, and a few months of peace and study with a new Christian settlement, and then a chance of love with a chieftain’s son who can appreciate the knowledge of Roman battle tactics she brings. By the time she is eighteen, Morgan has learnt a great many things, but the one thing she has not learnt is how to let go of the need for vengeance. It has, after all, kept her alive through the dark times…
I found the book a bit hard to get into at first, but once I got into the rhythm of the writing I was hooked. Epstein has taken the historical period of 500AD as the basis for his story, a time when the Roman legions had long withdrawn from Britain but many of the British still thought of themselves as Roman. He’s drawn on Irish mythology and blended it with modern Wiccan practice to create a believably consistent picture of magic, in a time when both Druid priests and Christian missionaries can draw on the power of the earth, and a young exile can learn to use it to protect herself and the people she loves. The result is a solid addition to the Arthurian legend, covering an area not much touched on, and giving a plausible reason for the adult Morgan le Fay to be who she is. Here she is a strong and sympathetic character, and it’s only too easy to understand why she makes the choices she does.
The book’s been written in such a way that it can be enjoyed both as a free-standing novel suitable for someone not familiar with any of the mythology and literature that has accreted around Arthur, and as a fascinating new contribution to that ongoing literary conversation. An excellent YA fantasy novel that should appeal to adults as well.