Reviews: Lilith's Love and Arthur's Bosom, by Tyler R. Tichelaar
We left Tyler Tichelaar's Arthur's Children series on a cliffhanger in 1995, at the end of Ogier's Prayer. (Here I must apologise for taking so long to post this review, which was fully drafted over a year ago but slipped my mind following a house move and the birth of our second child.) It's therefore somewhat startling to find that Lilith's Love, the fourth book in the series, makes a positively leisurely start eighteen years later, in 2013. The dramatic events of the last book turn out to have been followed by anticlimax. The wrongful charges against Adam and Anne Delaney have collapsed, but without any of the real villains brought to book; Lilith is still at large but has not yet been able to put her plans into action; the Delaneys' twin sons have grown up in isolation, cut off from their parents but successfully shielded from the dangers that appeared to hang over their heads.
After all of this, it is difficult for the present day story to regain the urgency it had in the previous book, especially given that the early scenes in Istanbul read more like travel writing than adventure fiction. Tichelaar's greatest strengths as a writer are in plotting and fantasy world-building: by leaping forward in this way he denies himself the ability to show them off in the early chapters. But then we reach the flashbacks, and we are back once more on his surest ground - yet, at the same time, on absolutely new ground for this series. For while the first three books looked back to medieval romance and legend (as will the fifth), Lilith's Love explores Tichelaar's other great literary interest, the Gothic. Although immortal Wanderers aplenty have already shown up in the earlier books, only one (the Wandering Jew) was drawn from nineteenth century Gothic literature, and he was merely incidentally identified with an Arthurian figure. Now, however, we are to meet Dracula, dhampirs, and Captain Vanderdecker of the Flying Dutchman, with Lilith herself looming behind them all. This brings a striking freshness to the story.
The main flashback sequence tells the story of Quincey Harker, the near-immortal son of Jonathan and Mina from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and his many clashes with Lilith over the course of the twentieth century. From an Edwardian boarding school to the battlefields of the two World Wars, we explore scenes unlike any the series has shown us before: and they are strongly and movingly drawn. Harker and his son Cedric are remarkably Gothic figures themselves, dark and antiheroic - and if anything, are so on a more grandiose level than Lilith herself. The more that is revealed of the titular antagonist, the more human she appears - to the point where she is almost ordinary in her motivations and her thinking. This is clearly deliberate. Tichelaar had done a superlative job of making his Merlin alien and unknowable, showing himself entirely capable of writing immortal characters. Furthermore, the point of the ending of Lilith's Love is that the protagonists' trope-based expectations about what kind of story they are in are overturned, and a major part of this is the discovery that the character built up in Ogier's Prayer as a cosmic embodiment of evil is in fact thoroughly relateable. However, I could not help but find the revealed Lilith a little disappointing. I'm not sure if there could have been a different way to handle the tension between her essential humanity and the fact that she is still a being of god-like power with thousands of years of experience and knowledge: but the tension is there, and in my view unresolved.
Also unresolved is Lilith's long history of crimes. Mercy and forgiveness are at the heart of Tichelaar's worldview, and this is admirable in itself: but his characters and the narrative itself seem almost inhumanly ready to accept, and trust, people who have done terrible things (to them and to others), with precious little sign shown of atonement. Just because forgiveness is necessary, that does not mean that it can or should be easy.
The surprise resolution of the main plotline at the end of the fourth book leaves the fifth somewhat isolated from the rest of the series - not a continuation, but a sequel, in which the Delaneys' twin sons, now adults, are cast back in time to Arthurian Britain, becoming embroiled in events from romance and legend and contributing to them themselves. Time travel of this kind, as opposed to merely being shown visions of the past, is another new departure for the series. Tichelaar handles it well (with the same proviso given in my review of the first book, that the world they travel to is not intended to be an historically plausible recreation of the sixth century, but rather represents later imaginings of it): however, the story is somewhat weighed down by the legacy of the first four books. Because Lance and Tristan's life experience is so different from that of ordinary modern youths, we need to be repeatedly reminded of it, to the extent that Arthur's Bosom cannot stand alone: it rests on the foundation of the rest of the series, even though it forms a separate story. And yet, at the same time, it is curiously divorced from it. The lead characters are people we barely met in the first four books, and some of what we thought we knew about them is not apparent here (to allow room for necessary exposition, they know considerably less than they should about the Arthurian legend and related matters - it seems that combat training was, for Lance especially, the only part of their education that stuck).
This means that it takes some time for the reader to feel fully invested in their experience. Only when a shocking event brings home to characters and reader alike that they are not tourists in the sixth century, but embedded in a grim and bloody world with no way out, does the story truly grip as the earlier volumes did.
There are still occasional touches of an anachronistic view of modern Britain - Lance's assumption, while he still thinks that he is in the twenty-first century, that the dark-skinned Palomides must be a recent immigrant is startling (though pleasingly up-ended when, in what is actually a sixth century setting, the knight turns out to be a Briton born). Tomatoes in the Arthurian era are another surprise: most of Tichelaar's anachronisms are intentional, the deliberate imposition of High and Late Medieval ideas on an earlier era. And, indeed, they crowd thicker and faster here than ever before - this is no longer the Welsh-derived Camelot of Arthur's Legacy, but one far more infused with the spirit of Malory and even T. H. White.
There ultimately turns out to be a good explanation for this - one which covers even the tomatoes. It is a long time coming, and some viewers may find the wait frustrating, but it is entirely in keeping with the by now established mythology of the series. It also neatly sets up a second ending - one which manages to fulfil some of the expectations that Lilith's Love had apparently dashed, without undermining any of the earlier book's subversiveness. The ultimate conclusion of the series manages the difficult feat of both surprising the reader and feeling inevitable.
While there is undeniably some unevenness to these last two books, and if I had to pick a favourite from the series it would still be Melusine's Gift, they do succeed in encompassing the sprawling grandeur of Tichelaar's vision, and rounding off his pentalogy in suitably epic style. The sheer ambition of this series cannot be overstated; and to cover so much ground at all, let alone bringing so many innovative and unconventional interpretations to age-old stories in the process, is a quite remarkable achievement. Taken as a whole, Arthur's Children is an entirely unique piece of art on a vast canvas; and it is impossible not to be impressed by it.