The Lost Queen
Signe Pike

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a good Arthurian retelling. This one is particularly good because it follows not Arthur but a forgotten queen from medieval Scotland, the sister of Merlin, who actually does exist in historical records. If you pick this up, I highly recommend reading the author’s note at the end, because the real-life research is fascinating. (Also, fun fact: I kept reading “Partick” as “Patrick” and didn’t self-correct until I was several chapters in. It’s not my fault. It looks like it should be “Patrick.”)

The Lost Queen introduces Languoreth, daughter of Morken, a minor king in sixth-century Scotland. Born in a land where Christianity has not yet taken root and the highest counsel is provided by Wisdom Keepers, Languoreth is raised in the Old Way, whose practitioners worship a myriad of gods. Her twin brother Lailoken, who will grow up to become the druid Myrddin (Merlin), is training to become a Wisdom Keeper; Languoreth wants to become a Wisdom Keeper as well, but is barred from training on the grounds that she is intended for a politically advantageous marriage. This is a sore spot for Languoreth, but she makes the best of it until she is flung into the path of Maelgwn, a warrior in the service of Emrys Pendragon. Though her heart says Maelgwn her father says Rhydderch, and she is shortly betrothed to Prince Rhydderch, the mild-mannered second son of Christian king Tutgual. Over the next 17 years she has four children – one from Maelgwn, three from Rhydderch – and eventually gives up on Maelgwn, but finds her hard-won wisdom and contentment going up in smoke the minute Maelgwn gallops back into her life. Meanwhile, the people who follow the Old Way find their traditions challenged and their lives threatened by encroaching Christians spearheaded by a powerful monk named Mungo, who is backed by Tutgual; and, in the midst of war and general unrest, Lailoken realizes that Languoreth’s daughter Angharad is highly gifted, and takes her away to train her as a Wisdom Keeper. The book ends with Languoreth imprisoned in her chamber while her husband and eldest son march away to wage war against Maelgwn (for reasons not related to Languoreth’s affair), and, by extension, against Lailoken and Angharad.

I was on the fence about this book for the longest time because it keeps getting compared to Outlander, and my general impression of Outlander is soft-core porn. This is one case where I’m glad I ignored my Inner Cynic. (Some women have an Inner Goddess; I have an Inner Cynic, who is more generally known as my Inner Secretary. That’s just how it goes sometimes.) At 527 pages it’s a bit of a chonker, but it actually goes by pretty quickly, and the story is addicting. I really love Languoreth, an impulsive, bad-tempered redhead who’s good with a knife. It doesn’t hurt that the Languoreth in my head looks exactly like Merida from Brave. I love that she’s headstrong without being stupid. Far too many authors mistake stupidity for strength, which unerringly results in the kind of female character that drives me crazy, and I’m so glad Pike didn’t follow suit. Languoreth may be impetuous and at times somewhat petty, but she learns from her mistakes. The moment she ordered the execution of a treacherous servant marked her departure from naive princess to ruthless future queen, and I am so here for it. I don’t know if I would follow her into battle just yet, but I feel like she’s getting there.

I’m also looking forward to seeing more of Angharad, who – assuming she reaches adulthood – seems poised to become a powerful Wisdom Keeper. Her departure was one of the most bittersweet elements of the story. I’m thrilled for her and I can’t wait to see what she becomes, but I also feel terrible for Languoreth, who had to battle considerable personal jealousy before allowing Angharad to begin training. Though she tries to deny it when pressed, it is very clear that part of her reluctance is predicated on her own inability to become a Wisdom Keeper, and it is heartbreaking. I am currently consoling myself with the knowledge that she will go on to become, as the author’s note states, a powerful queen and one of the most influential women in early medieval Scotland. (It’s not really working right now, but I’ll keep trying.)

I’m less certain of my feelings for Rhydderch. I’ve never really been sure if I actually like him or not, because he spends 527 pages walking a very fine likeability line. I like that he loves Languoreth and is a doting father, but I don’t trust him. Throughout the book Rhydderch has been upfront about the fact that he will tolerate just about anything, up to and including violence against his wife, if it keeps him in line to inherit his father’s throne. While I understand that this is the best possible outcome for pretty much everybody in Scotland and that Rhydderch is fighting an uphill battle to get his father to name him as successor rather than his brutish older brother, I feel like he could’ve at least tried to intervene before his father assaulted a heavily pregnant Languoreth in front of the entire court. Rhydderch is clever enough that he probably could’ve pulled that off without threatening his inheritance, and it doesn’t say very much for him that he didn’t even try to defend the wife he claims to love. He later commits the fairly major blunder of failing to tell Languoreth in person that he is marching off to war against Lailoken and Angharad. I’m also not sure how much his father’s Christianity has gotten to him, but one thing I know for damn sure is that Mungo is going to come back, and I’m not looking forward to seeing his ass again.

With all that being said, it is now time to unpack my least favorite part. You all knew this was coming, and here it is: THE ROMANCE. Actually, I can’t complain too much about the romance in this particular book because it was mostly a background note to the wars being fought and the lives being lived, and I didn’t really mind it as much as I’ve minded other romances in other books. I did not, for instance, feel the need to file it under my bad romance tag because it takes place between two consenting adults (er, more or less – I’m accounting for the fact that Languoreth at 15 or 16 was considered a marriageable adult), it doesn’t involve gang rape or threats of death or dismemberment, and it doesn’t end with Maelgwn trying to annihilate Languoreth in a fit of paranoid hysteria. It also doesn’t qualify as a trashy romance, for which I am grateful. There is the very slight problem that their attraction is purely physical and at this point I feel like they don’t really know each other, but that’s nothing new.

I purposely omitted the romance from my initial synopsis because if I’d tried to include it the synopsis would’ve been about the size of War and Peace, so here’s a quick(ish) overview. Languoreth sees Maelgwn. Maelgwn sees Languoreth. They are instantly attracted, but they can’t be together. Languoreth is a princess and Maelgwn a cash-strapped soldier and all in all the stars are not in their favor, though they do manage to consummate their, like, five-minute relationship. (Sorry, but if you know me you know I have no patience with romance, and, though I knew it was going to be there, it wasn’t the reason I read the book.) Immediately afterwards Languoreth goes to her new husband and Maelgwn rides off to war, and they are separated for the next 17 years. Languoreth’s life would be all right if she weren’t hung up on Maelgwn, but that’s romances for you. At first she tries to pass him messages through Lailoken, but, offended by the lack of a return message, later decides that Maelgwn cares nothing for her and that she is wasting her time (to which I said YES!). Then Maelgwn actually shows up and reveals that he is still in love with Languoreth, and they resume their ill-advised relationship (to which I said NO!). If Rhydderch were dead that would be one thing but he was very much alive the last time I checked, and something tells me he’s not shipping out anytime soon. On the other hand, Languoreth’s mother-in-law has most definitely had at least one affair and her husband is still alive and she has not yet been burned at the stake, so maybe there’ll be a way for Languoreth to get what she wants. Maybe if we’re all really good, Tutgual will even die in the next book. The synopsis is kinda making it sound as if he does.

Obviously these are not large concerns, because I still gave the book five stars. I would prefer it if romance didn’t have to get shoehorned into every damn story under the sun, but, well, humans will be humans and humans (other than myself) demand romance, so it is what it is. Overall I really liked The Lost Queen, and I’m excited to see what happens next.