[ Book Review ] Camelot, ‘Tis a Silly Place for Papers

The Camelot Papers by Peter David

Judging from the tabloid-looking cover, The Camelot Papers looks like a laugh-out-loud US Weekly meets Arthurian England farce. But that’s not it.

Not it at all.

The Camelot Papers by Peter David is a series of journal entries written by Viviana, a mid-to-late 20s woman sold into the service of Uther Pendragon and later his son Arthur. Despite her status, Viviana is more educated than the royals to whom she’s indentured, something both Arthur (who admits to her he’s illiterate) and “wizard” Merlin find most interesting.

The only trouble is, I’m not quite sure what the cover has to do with the story at all.

Yes, there’s humor, but The Camelot Papers also features a lot of serious moments laced with its trademark dark wryness. There are cute scenes and places where I’d smile at something witty Viviana said or something Arthur did that makes him look like an idiot. But not once did I laugh out loud and turn to my roommate and say, “Okay, okay, lemme read this to you…” It’s not that type of humor novel.

What kind of novel is it, then? It’s one with a strong narrative voice and intriguing characters. Viviana isn’t a wallflower; she has a voice and she uses it when she can, then braces herself for the consequences. She’s neither abrasive nor rude, but cautious–and insanely optimistic despite what life has dealt her.

When Merlin questions her perspective, Viviana explains, “It is not for me to judge the world, sir. It is for me to survive in it…that is my philosophy. I cling to it to survive. I find it more palatable than the thought that God permits my existence to be one long, unending misery because He has some higher purpose to which I am not privy.”

That outlook on life makes Viviana the perfect narrator. Throughout the novel she doesn’t judge nor wallow in anger at her situation–her own father sold her to settle debts. Instead, she ends up explaining to Arthur that despite her journal filling with entries, she prefers each chapter of her life to start at Day One. That said, she’s not a Royal Historian color-washing Camelot in rainbows and leprechauns. Neither is she a journalist writing a scandalous tell-all book. She’s a fly-on-the-wall, writing a daily journal about the people in her life.

And the results are one part dark-realism, one part black humor.

Let me give you some examples: The novel opens up with Viviana thrown face-first on a bed with King Uther about to have his way with her. The moment is thankfully interrupted when Arthur walks in and goes, “Is this a bad time?”

During the celebration of Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding, King Uther dies, presumably poisoned by his wine. A rival of Uther’s, Maleagant, challenges Arthur for the crown. A duel breaks out, and Arthur stabs his father’s murder. Maleagant grabs his bleeding chest and says with his dying breath: “This would probably be a bad time… to tell you… I am innocent…”

That’s what I’ve always loved about David’s writing. Even in the most serious of situations, one line is all it takes to break up the scene. He’s damn good at writing serious scenes and stories, but the humor-laced comments… It’s almost as if David can’t help himself. And really, we don’t want him to.

If your only source of knowledge of King Arthur is Monty Python, you might not appreciate The Camelot Papers as much. Names and references will fly by, and nothing is really explained. Oh, sure, Viviana mentions that Arthur is Uther’s son and Merlin’s a crazy old man. But Viviana doesn’t explain in her journals who she is. In most Arthurian tales, Viviane is the name of the Lady of the Lake, the woman who gave Arthur his famous sword Excalibur. (Though the fake forward by fake professors giving the fake journals their fake stamp of authenticity does address this, indicating that the journals are proof the Lady of the Lake was real person.)

And then there’s Viviana’s imaginary boyfriend, a Knight named Galahad. He’s perfect, he’s awesome, he’s everything Twihards think Edward is… which is pretty close to how Galahad the Pure was in Le Morte d’Arthur.

Overall, The Camelot Papers is an engaging read–unexpectedly so. That  cover had me thinking it was going to be reading a parody, a la Monty Python. Instead, what I got was a solid, stand-alone story based loosely on the legends of Camelot. For lovers of King Arthur, definitely give The Camelot Papers a read. But don’t go looking for it in your local bookstore; it’s a Nook/Kindle exclusive… and available as a print-on-demand via Amazon.

And if this sounds like something for you, there’s more. While David is mostly known for comics and Star Trek novels, this isn’t his first venture into Arthurian mythology with a twist. I highly recommend the Knight Life trilogy (Knight Life, One Knight Only and Fall of Knight) which tells the story of King Arthur’s return to the modern world, and how he successfully ran for mayor of New York City.