Book Review: The Female Transformation of Narrative: A Review of Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception
The Female Transformation of Narrative:
A Review of Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception
By Katherine Cowley
As a teenager, I didn’t notice that many of my favorite novels and movies had no female characters—or at least very few female characters with true agency, with desires of their own, and with the ability impact the story. Now, as I reread books from Lord of the Rings to Ender’s Game, the dearth of empowered female characters startles me: there is no character in these stories that represents who I want to be.
New York Times bestselling author—and Mormon—Kiersten White writes about this as part of her motivation behind her new young adult novel, The Guinevere Deception (released November 5th, 2019, by Delacorte Press). She says, “I’ve always been fascinated by the Arthurian legends, but I find the same problem there that I have with most classic tales: a stunning lack of compelling female characters…. I wanted a Guinevere who was more than the fickle, feckless love interest. A Guinevere with agency and longing, adventures and fierce friends. A Guinevere who perhaps isn’t Guinevere, but a mystery to everyone—including herself.”
White delivers, with a fierce, independent Guinevere who acts as a hero to Camelot at a time when civilization itself risks falling. While set in Camelot, the story can be read as a mirror of our own times and the issues women still face on a daily basis. In the opening chapter, as she journeys to marry King Arthur, Guinevere recognizes the objectification and commodification of women: she knows that those around her see her as “goods to be guarded and safely delivered to the new owner.” Later in the book, we read, “annoyed, she forgot to be a painting.” At other points she questions her own behavior: “Why did she constantly offer smiles when none were demanded?”
Women are expected to wield power in Camelot, and as the new queen, Guinevere holds extra sway, yet still she finds herself confined by the circumscriptions and bounds of that power, by the roles she plays that, while powerful, also limit her. Magic is not allowed, and every time she uses it, she risks losing everything she has gained. Of this power, she thinks it is “[b]etter to be small. Knotted. Contained.” At her lowest point, she believes this not only about her magic, but about herself. It is wearying to constantly fight for power in society, to fight for a place, to fight for notice, to fight to make a difference and realize that your contributions are less valued than the contributions of men.
Ultimately, Guinevere transforms the often-told narrative and is able to define herself and her power on her own terms. As this occurs, Kiersten White also transforms the reader’s experience of the classic tale. Instead of being a story of a man and his friends and their adventures, this is a story of a woman and her friends (several of them LGBTQ characters) and their adventures.
We need stories like this, books that take our history and our classic literature and show a multitude of spaces for women within. As science fiction author Kameron Hurley writes in a Hugo-award winning essay: “We have always fought.” Women have always fought, and Kiersten White uses fiction to provide a model for creating more possibilities for ourselves. The Guinevere Deception is a compelling, empowering story for young adults and adults alike.
Katherine Cowley is the author of the fairy tale retelling, “Tatterhood and the Prince’s Hand,” which is part of the anthology Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales. She is on the board of directors for the Mormon Lit Lab; her Mormon fiction has been published in Segullah and the Mormon Lit Blitz.