Berserkers, Sorcery, and Legend: Review on Hawk of May

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Published in 1980, Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May isn’t exactly a new book, and I only came across it by chance. Yes, I judged this book by its cover. It’s gorgeous and simple. I paused long enough to read the inside flap. First line: “…this exciting historical fantasy recreates the magical world of King Arthur’s England.” Yes please.

Even better, when Bradshaw wrote this book, she was studying for a Master of Arts in classics at Cambridge. I had a feeling she knew her stuff. (I’m a sucker for intellectuals.) She begins the novel with a few notes on where she found inspiration: Celtic tales and poetry, Arthurian legends, a little spot of time shortly after the Romans left Britain. Of course, she adds a disclaimer: the historical background is only partially accurate. But who cares. It’s fiction. I’m in this for a story.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book like Hawk of May. Bradshaw achieves a lovely balance between realistic, gritty struggles and the stuff of legends. This is a historical fantasy I can almost believe in because it’s still so human. I love picking up a book where magical elements are not easily accepted by the characters within it. Magic, for me, must be mysterious because that’s what makes it believable.

If you’re not already intrigued, here’s a quick sum up:

It begins with the death of the Pendragon, Uther. All the kings of Britain set out to gain the title, but it is Arthur, bastard son of Uther, who leads the strongest warband. Fearing that the Pendragon title would be won by a bastard son, they united against him… but Arthur subdues them all and sets out to defeat their common enemy, the Saxons.

During this time, the narrator and protagonist, Gwalchmai, is just a boy. He is the middle son of King Lot and the darkly beautiful sorceress, Morgawse (Arthur’s sister). His brother Agravain is of age to become a warrior and holds the ambition and skill to do so. Gwalchmai, however, is less than skilled at throwing spears and fighting. After a nasty falling out with his brother, he goes to his mother to learn sorcery. He quickly realizes the darkness of sorcery but is unable to turn away from his mother at first.

When Lot is defeated and Agravain taken as a hostage, Gwalchmai’s mother asks him to help her perform a terrifying, sacrificial ritual as an attack against Arthur. This drives him away, and his own mother sends a demon after him. Terrified and unable to return home, he pledges himself to the Light and is answered with a mysterious boat that takes him to an island inhabited by the Sidhe. Here he is given the sword, Caledvwlch, and told to seek out and join Arthur’s warband.

Upon returning to the normal realm, he finds several years have passed. Through a series of synchronicities that seem to be strung together by the Light, he is captured by Saxons, bonds with an otherworldly horse he names Ceincaled, finds his brother, and proves himself as a great warrior. But Arthur, who holds a terrible secret and suspects him of sorcery, will not accept him into the Family.

As it turns out, Hawk of May is the first in a trilogy. More? Yes. I’m excited. Yes. I’ll read the rest. First, though, I have turned my attention to another novel, one that begins in a disturbing future India… But I’ll save that for next week.

 

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