When I was young, I escaped into fictional worlds. It’s not that my existence was objectively hard as a child; it’s that I didn’t quite fit. Not at school, not at home, and not even with my closest friends. Books were a place where I could imagine that I belonged, that I fit in effortlessly, something I was never able to do in my physical spaces.
Mary Stewart’s The Merlin Trilogy was foundational when it came to both my interests and my need for mental escape. I first picked up this tome because of its length — encompassing three books (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment), it was the right length for a summer-long trip to India. I always took the longest books I could find on these travels; not only did they provide entertainment, but they also gave me a connection to home when I was feeling lost.
But with The Merlin Trilogy, I found more than I bargained for. I discovered a magical world that was brutal and difficult, certainly, but where ideas like justice and fair play mattered. I became completely enamored with the court of King Arthur and ideals of Camelot; the book (along with Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series) inspired a lifelong love of Arthurian myths and legends. After I returned home, I continued to reread the book; instead of being a tie to something familiar, it became another place where I imagined I could fit in.
Over the years, I’ve tried to find books to recapture that feeling, that utter absorption in a place I’ve only visited in my imagination. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult to find. Between less time to read and a shorter attention span, it’s hard for me to truly be captured by a book anymore. Even if I really enjoy a book, it rarely calls to me the way The Merlin Trilogy does during my rereads.
That is until I recently read The Lost Queen by Signe Pike. This spectacular novel, also the first in a trilogy, is told through the eyes of Languoreth, a sixth-century Scottish girl and twin sister to the boy who would become Merlin. Like The Merlin Trilogy, it’s a historical novel that ties in actual people and places into a fantastical tale of magic. And like Mary Stewart’s masterpiece, it drew me in utterly and irrevocably.
I still carry my emotional reaction to The Merlin Trilogy, one of a lost child desperate to fit in. With The Lost Queen, it was different. I’ve found my place and life is pretty good. The world around me, however, is not. It provided me a rare and necessary moment of escape from the anxiety of living in a chaotic and cruel world.
Reading about Languoreth’s life wasn’t always easy. It was a difficult time in Britain, as anyone familiar with the Arthur legends knows. Rape, pillage, and conquest were regular facets of life. And while Pike takes that brutality into account, she doesn’t let it detract from the magic of her story. It’s incredibly difficult to write an escapist novel while dealing with heavy topics, yet Pike does it with ease. We feel Languoreth’s frustration at the restrictions placed on her because she is a woman, and the daughter of an important man expected to make an advantageous marriage, and yet the novel is never depressing or hopeless because of it.
As the novel progresses, hints of familiar characters make themselves known — Emrys, Uther, the Pendragon name. It’s so much fun to tease out hints of the legend you know from an entirely new retelling. Too many King Arthur stories these days feel derivative, but Pike’s is fresh and engaging.
At a time when I’m finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on a book because of building anxiety about what’s happening in the world, The Lost Queen was the book I needed. It reminded me why I love to read. It reminded me what I used to get out of reading, and what I need from the books I choose now. But most of all, it was an entertaining and important story that let me escape from the world for a few precious hours, something that is absolutely priceless.