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John Matthews, long known for his scholarly books on King Arthur, has finally published the first novel in his long-awaited series about King Arthur’s childhood. The book is The Sword of Ice and Fire, and it’s the first of four books in the Red Dragon Rising series. This series is quite an undertaking because, first of all, Matthews has a reputation to live up to, and secondly, he has a whole Arthurian tradition behind him to draw upon.

Matthews’ first Arthurian novel is complete with Vortigern, dragons, and even shapeshifters and a Celtic god.

That said, only T. H. White previously wrote a novel about Arthur’s childhood, namely The Sword and the Stone, later the first part of The Once and Future King and the source for the Disney film The Sword and the Stone. As Matthews notes in his Author’s Note, White’s version of Arthur’s childhood is too humorous and light-hearted to fit with much of the later Arthurian material and White’s depiction of it in his own later novels. If there are other depictions of Arthur’s childhood, I’m not aware of them. Merlin’s childhood has been treated in a long series of books by T. A. Barron, but I have to admit they are too over the top and far-fetched that they don’t resemble anything Arthurian at all but more just broad children’s fantasy. Therefore, I was both interested and a bit unsure how I would take to Matthews’ novels.

It turns out I greatly enjoyed this first book. The Sword of Ice and Fire is definitely a young adult novel, so I didn’t become as engrossed in it as I might an adult novel, and it is a fantasy story, so it may not appeal to those who are only interested in the more historical Arthur, but setting those two elements aside, there is much in this book to enjoy, especially how Matthews uses many aspects of the Arthurian legend in new and surprising ways that ultimately leave you thinking, “Yes, that makes perfect sense” or “I never thought of it that way; why has no one else until now?”

The story takes place in a castle where Arthur has been brought by Merlin to be raised. Arthur is cared for by Sir Hector and his wife Elaine, and he has a foster brother, Cai, just like in most versions of the story. What makes the novel stand out is that the castle is in Avalon, and in it also reside nine sisters, known as “the Nine.” Matthews here is drawing upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s statement in the Vita Merlini that there were nine sisters in Avalon. In his Author’s Note, Matthews notes that Geoffrey gave them names, but Matthews has decided to give some of them different names, and the list is quite impressive since they are all women of significance in Arthurian legend to some degree or another. Of course, there is Nimue and Morgaine, but there’s also Argante and Ragnel. I’ll let readers discover the other sisters for themselves.

Another fascinating part of the storyline is the inclusion of Bercilak, the Green Knight. While the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn’t tell us much about the Green Knight’s background, here we get his back story, and he even ends up becoming Arthur’s teacher.

Merlin has brought Arthur to Avalon to keep him safe, and to ensure that safety, Arthur has not been taught anything about his childhood, so in the novel we also watch him finally become aware of his heritage as son to the late King Uther Pendragon, as well as why his safety is in jeopardy. Early on, we learn there is someone evil who wants to see Arthur fail and who wants to take possession of the Sword of Ice and Fire for himself. Eventually, we learn this villain’s identity—this is where I was most surprised by Matthews’ choices. The villain is a magician named Amangons, whom in his Author’s Note Matthews tells us is a magician from an obscure French medieval story, The Elucidation. I have to wonder why Matthews chose to include this character and also make him a relative of Arthur’s—hence, his desire to kill Arthur and obtain the throne for himself. That said, perhaps Matthews wanted to save the other better-known Arthurian villains for his later works.

One of the best uses of the Arthurian legend in the book is how Matthews treats the Questing Beast Glatisant. I really enjoyed his depiction of the beast and how the beast plays into the plot. I also liked how he introduced into the novel the Treasures or Britain—he refers to them as the Hallows of Albion. In the Arthurian legend, there are Thirteen Treasures, but Matthews has reduced them to four. The Sword of Ice and Fire is the first of these treasures, which Arthur must achieve. Needless to say, he does, and the remaining three volumes of the series will tell the stories of how he achieves the remaining three.

I feel like I’ve already said too much in terms of revealing the plot so I’ll stop here and just add that I think anyone who enjoys Arthuriana, and isn’t a stickler for a solely historical and realistic novel, will find this book a fun read. It’s really enjoyable Arthuriana for all ages, and I’m eager to read the remainder of the series. Congratulations to John Matthews for creating a successful first volume.

The Sword of Ice and Fire (ISBN-13: 978-1911122173) is published by The Greystones Press. It is available at Amazon and most online and retail bookstores.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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