Dawnflight by Kim Headlee
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG) ISBN: 0-671-02041-2
*****
There is a part of me that feels stunned amazement that Sonnet Books actually published Dawnflight. Let us all thank editor Kate Collins for her willingness to ignore the increasingly constraining conventions of romance publishing to bring this wonderful book to us. For, my friends, this is not your typical romance. Rather, it is an impressive tour de force that takes the familiar Arthurian legends and turns them on their heads.

The heroine of Dawnflight is no Julie Andrews. Gyanhumara nic Hymar is Chieftainess of the Clan Argyll, the largest and most powerful of the Caledonian clans. Unfortunately, the Caledonians have recently been defeated by the Brytoni forces under their Dux Britannicus, Arthur. Rather than destroy his foes, Arthur has chosen to seek to make them allies by insisting that the young Argyll chieftainess marry the son of a Brytoni tribe leader. The logical candidate is Urien map Dumarec who arrives at the clan’s stronghold to seal the bargain.

Urien is handsome, rich, and a brave warrior. Since neither speaks the other’s language, real communication is impossible. Urien certainly wants to wed the beautiful, exotic warrior queen. But Gyan develops doubts about her suitor. Can he accept that his wife is a ruler in her own right? Can he understand that she is a warrior in her own right? Will he expect her to become a subservient wife like the women of his own people?

But Gyan represses her doubts, even when the priest prophesies that “A powerful chieftain of Brydein is fated to bring you great joy and great sorrow. And death.” The betrothal has been formalized and to break it would only bring death and destruction to her clan. So Gyan, as the treaty requires, leaves her home to travel to the island of Maun where she will be instructed by the monks in Brytoni learning as preparation for her new role.

On the way to Maun, she visits the fortress of Cael Camboglanna where she meets the great Arthur himself. The two instantly recognize that they are kindred souls. And Gyan becomes increasingly convinced that marriage with Urien will bring her no joy. Still, political realities stand in the way of Gyan’s and Arthur’s happiness.

How these two fated lovers overcome the seemingly impossible barriers to their union is the romance of Dawnflight and its a marvelous love story of two strong people who can glory in the other’s strength.

But there is so much more in this book. What Headlee has done is to take the Arthurian legends and all the characters we know so well and place them in the world of the late fifth century. So very little is actually known about Britain during this era that a good storyteller has immense latitude. Headlee has created a completely believable world, as the remnants of the Romanicized Britons struggle to maintain their civilization against invaders from the west (the nasty Scots of Ireland, and yes, the Scots were originally Irish), from the north and from the east.

Headlee’s Arthur is a man of immense ability facing a daunting task. He must weld the fractious Brytoni clans into a unified force to withstand the threats of their enemies. He must contend with enemies within as well as without. His wisdom, courage and charisma -- and his humanity -- make him a true hero.

Gyan, Headlee’s Guinevere, is his equal in every way. The author is convinced that Arthur’s queen has been given a “bum rap” by male chroniclers to whom the concept of a warrior queen is anathema. As Headlee herself describes her purpose:

. . . it is not my intent so much to exonerate Guinevere as it is to present a version of her story plausible enough to explain how the medieval and later stories, rife with themes of lust, adultery and treason, might have come to be.

With Dawnflight she has made a most compelling start to achieving her goal.

As I stated above, this book does not fit the usual conventions of the romance genre. I sincerely hope that all those readers who chafe at the sameness of so many of the books that are published these days and who look back longingly at the rich, historical tapestry of earlier books will give Dawnflight the support it deserves. My motives are selfish. Clearly, this is the first in what will be a series of books about Arthur and Gyan and I want to make sure that the others are published.

If I had to liken Dawnflight to other books in its sweep and power, I might well point to Diane Gabaldon’s books or those of Roberta Gellis. Or perhaps the early Britain books of Joan Wolf. In other words, Dawnflight is a marvelous historical romance.

--Jean Mason


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