Whosoever wields the Sword of Power shall be the one true King. But what if the Sword has chosen a Queen?
- The tagline for Cursed.
Cursed, by Thomas Wheeler, is a fascinating retelling of the legends of King Arthur. The book shifts the focus of the legends onto a member of the Fey realm. The Fey, otherwise known as Fairies or the Fair Folk, are a traditional society of otherworldly creatures that generally play a side roll in most European folklore and stories. This is one of the things that originally drew me to the book, which I listened to as an Advanced Listener’s Copy on Libro.fm, as I am a massive fan of the twisting of a story to tell it from another character or society’s perspective. I love the idea of a sympathetic nonhuman main character, and Nimue is definitely in the running for one of the most fascinating narrators I’ve ever read.
Wheeler is a master of the uncommon literary device, and I learned this from the very first two chapters because Nimue, our narrator, introduces us to her world by being an outcast. She is considered dangerous due to her connection to the Hidden, which is a force of spirits that work beyond our understanding, a sort of dark spirit realm that provides incredible power but never comes without a cost. This immediately changed my understanding of how this world was going to work; the Fey themselves aren’t the mysterious force we know, but rather are more connected to it than we are as humans. It also gave us an insight into their society by highlighting how Nimue doesn’t fit into it, while also giving us insight into the main conflict of the story extremely early on.
That conflict is also an unusual device: a direct parallel that reads clearly without being unfair to either real-world counterpart, between the Red Paladins, as well as the armies of King Arthur, and the Fey Folk, whose different clans are forced into an uneasy alliance. It’s a cold war based on fear and misunderstanding, and mistrust that goes back centuries, which is a dark echo of the real world, with good and bad individuals on both sides and a marked focus on motivation rather than pure good/evil dynamics. By filtering the core idea of prejudice through the lens of fantasy, Wheeler sheds more of a light on the motivations behind many conflicts that we are familiar with in the real world, playing with the idea of racial tensions and highlighting the perspectives of both sides in a way that makes it shockingly realistic.
I will say that the only thing I didn’t really like about the book was its ending. Specifically, the ending of Nimue’s character arc. My real struggle with it was the pacing, which builds in intensity throughout the narrative to a peak in the last few chapters, but seemingly doesn’t quite reach what it was building toward. We have our climactic battle, but the end of Nimue’s story seems to arrive abruptly after that, and with very little reader satisfaction for her fate. It throws the otherwise excellent construction and logical progression and seems to have a rushed quality as if it were an afterthought. The only reason I can think of for this abrupt ending is leaving room for a sequel novel, which would explain a few narrative loose-ends (again, I’ll refrain from specifics so that I won't spoil the book for you). If that is the case, then I will be more than happy to read it.
Other than that, Cursed is both fun and heartbreaking in equal measure. There’s romance and family ties and tragedy and treachery, with enough political intrigue to be interesting without coming across as dry. All of the characters are well constructed, the nonlinear storytelling is fascinating but easy to follow, and the ties to the original mythos make the reveals of the characters and their place in the story all the more enjoyable without taking anything away from a reader without this prior knowledge. I wholeheartedly recommend this as an adventurous, escapist read.
Born in the Dawn, To Pass in the Twilight.
(You can find a link to the book on my Book Recommendations page.)