‘Spear’ by Nicola Griffith: A queer classic in the making

Our Spear book review dives into Nicola Griffith’s lush queer retelling of Arthurian legend’s very own Percival.

I know the basics of Arthurian legend—the sword in the stone, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, and all that—but I have to admit that any deeper knowledge I may have once had (if I had any at all) has been lost to the annals of time.

Not that it matters—because even a layperson such as myself recognizes the amount of time, devotion, and research Nicola Griffith put into writing this book. And that’s all before you get to the author’s note and her meticulous list of citations.

I’ll be honest and say I don’t remember much about Percival, but if the stories I’ve read before Spear had been anything like this, I would’ve paid more attention.

The book begins by introducing us to a young girl whose mother keeps her hidden away from the world. We don’t know why, only that the little girl is special. We see her running through the forest as though she were a sprite, communicating not only with the animals around her, but the very earth itself.

This part of the story is told from a distance—years of the girl’s life experienced over the course of a few pages, stopping on a moment here or there that she will look back on later. We see her grow and rebel against a mother who is kind and loving one minute, then tortured and enigmatic the next.

All of this mystery, coupled with the fact that her mother wants to keep her on a short leash, makes the girl even more curious about what’s out there. She’s seen knights on horseback fighting in the name of an illustrious king, and she wants nothing more than to join them.

Against her mother’s wishes, the girl leaves their hidden home, now burdened with the knowledge of her true name—Peretur.

Once Peretur ventures off on her own, I found myself much more invested in the story. The mystery wasn’t behind her, per se, but she was finally moving forward, discovering who she was as a person outside of her mother’s influences.

Though she still identifies as a woman, she spends the rest of the book pretending to be a man, working first as a byre boy to take care of the horses and then eventually as a knight. I’ve always enjoyed stories like this—a woman proving she can do anything a man can do—with the added bonus that her being discovered or outed plays little to no part in the tale.

What I loved even more were the queer relationships in the story. Peretur finds herself attracted to several different women and has both sexual and emotional relationships with them. They are often kept secret, but it doesn’t feel shameful. It’s simply a private matter, as is her true identity as a woman.

And then there’s Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot—and even I remember the love triangle these three are often thrown into. Though I want to keep this Spear book review as spoiler-free as possible, I also want to entice potential readers with a hint that this relationship isn’t quite as straightforward as we’ve read in most iterations. And I love that, too.

The romance in this book is hardly at the forefront of the story. While everything is well-balanced, it would be incorrect to say that Per’s journey to knighthood doesn’t take front-and-center. And though I would describe her path forward as an easy one, that doesn’t distract from Griffith’s ability to weave magic into every page.

Peretur is an anomaly in this world. As she grows older and more experienced, she comes into her powers. She can listen to the wind to know if something is hidden amongst the trees, and she can feel the ground shifting underfoot, telling her which way her enemy will move and when they’ll strike.

This obviously allows her to become more than a proficient fighter, reigning supreme time and time again. But she still needs to learn what it means to be a knight, what it means to work as a team. And this is where we get to see Per grow as a person, both in mind and in spirit.

I loved Per’s magical abilities because they were unique in that she didn’t have many limits. And though this could have come off as overpowered, Griffith chose to make it an issue of morality—who was she, why was she born with these abilities, and how should she use them to do what is good and right? And how do you define good and right?

This brings us to the end of the story, as well as the end of this Spear book review. You’ll find no spoilers from me, but all of Per’s questions are answered and the mysteries set up in the opening chapters are solved by the closing ones.

In the end, Per must make a decision that isn’t the best one for all the characters, but is the best one for the world. That’s the kind of burden she’s destined to bear for the rest of her life. Either way, I was more than satisfied when I turned to the final page.

If you’re looking for a lush Medieval fantasy to lose yourself in—one full of magic and romance and adventure—you need look no further than Spear by Nicola Griffith. I love a good queer retelling, and Griffith certainly made Spear feel like a classic for the ages.

‘Spear’ hit store shelves on April 19, 2022

Buy Spear by Nicola Griffith from Macmillan, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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