ARC Review: The Cleaving by Juliet McKenna

Today I bring you a review of THE CLEAVING by Juliet McKenna. THE CLEAVING is an Arthurian retelling from Nimue’s point of view that also follows Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere. It provides an alternative perspect on Merlin and his disregard of the consequences for using magic to meddle in mortal fates.

Author: Juliet E. McKenna
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publish Date: April 11, 2023
Print Length: 384

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Official Synopsis

Four women, four destinies – the future of King Arthur’s court…

A fresh, feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends

The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.

The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?

As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.

My Review

I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.

THE CLEAVING is an Arthurian retelling from Nimue’s point of view (POV) that follows the calamaties that arise when mixing magic with mortal fates. This was a highly anticipated read of mine this year that, while chock full of details, fell unexpectedly short of my expectations. However, keep in mind that what didn’t work for me may indeed delight others. First up, though, are aspects I appreciated in THE CLEAVING.

Despite my vocality about enjoying Arthurian retellings, I haven’t actually read all that many. But each one I’ve read recently was from a different POV, this time from Nimue’s perspective. Though magical like Merlin, she abides by her people’s rules and rarely interferes with mortal events. To do so could potentially result in unforeseen circumstances. Merlin, however, has no qualms flaunting his magic to get Arthur to his foreseen position of High King. It was an interesting take to read about a Merlin who is egotistical, hubristic, and unrepentant in his single-minded goal to ensure Arthur becomes king. Other Arthurian retellings I’ve read paint Merlin as a good, mystical, ethereal character. But the author sheds an alternative interpretation of Merlin’s character. He gaslights and cares little for the consequences so long as they justify the ultimate outcome.

Another thing I appreciated about THE CLEAVING is that the author didn’t shy away from the manner of Arthur’s siring. The general story is that Uther Pendragon desired Ygraine, who was already married to the king of Cornwall. But through Merlin’s trickery, Uther slips into their castle and satiates his desire for Ygraine. It seems to me many stories gloss over this part of the legend, for obvioius reasons. It’s not a nice act to think about. But McKenna bares the ugly side of the romanticization of the myth. (Note: there is on page rape.)

Since this is an Arthurian retelling, it almost goes without saying that fate is the main theme of this book. The underestimation of women comes in second. Though billed as a feminist retelling, this description is more subtely conveyed in the story. These women act within the confines of medieval society and so can only influence so much. However, despite the female POV, I felt that the characterization of Nimue, and the other women, was superficial.

The author spent a lot of time describing the scenes, most of which was via “tell” rather than “show.” These weren’t lengthy or incredibly detailed descriptions akin to Tolkien’s style. And it’s evident that this time period is her expertise. But it’s important that an author know what isn’t important to include in a story, no matter how much they might want to include it.

I felt that the amount of detail of name dropping and small information dumps didn’t do much to build the world or make it approachable for the reader. This name and location dropping might work for those who are quite familiar with Arthurian legend and the geography of the area. But for a casual enthusiast it was difficult to keep track of everyone and every place. There was little preamble for new characters, which made my relationship with the story feel distant. While I don’t necessarily need to connect to a character to enjoy the story, I would at least like to understand them. The story doesn’t delve into Merlin’s motives, nor does Nimue push Merlin for them. It all felt very passive.

I think readers who are very familiar with Arthurian legend might appreciate THE CLEAVING. Or even readers who prefer less about characterization and are more interested in descriptions of courts and various knights of the realm. However, those who seek ethereal descriptions of Tintagel or Camelot might find more enjoyment from other retellings.

Rating: 3.25
Content warnings: rape, death, blood, gaslighting
Reading format: Kindle e-book

10 thoughts on “ARC Review: The Cleaving by Juliet McKenna

  1. You’re not the first person I’ve seen mention that this book didn’t quite live up to expectations. What a bummer! While it sounds like it could be an extremely enjoyable read, I can see why you walked away from it feeling a bit let down. I’m thankful I read your review, because it definitely confirms that this isn’t the right book for me.

    1. Thanks for reading! I’m at least glad you found it helpful with respect to whether it might be a book you’d pick up. It appears not!

    1. I know!!! Which is one of the reasons why I was excited about it, though I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. There are a few “older” Arthurian retellings I eventually want to read, like the Kierstin White’s Camelot Rising trilogy, or even The Once and Future King (I’m not sure how dry this latter one is?).

  2. Awesome review Celeste..!!! The publisher actually sent me two copies of this book mistakenly and I didn’t even realize that there was stuff like on page rape, or else I probably wouldn’t have said yes for a copy.. I’m glad to read your thoughts though, because now I can decide when I want to read it. And I’m even less of a casual Arthurian enthusiast than you, so I might find this not easily accessible in terms of content.

    1. Thanks, Sahi! 🙂 My understanding is somehow the publisher completely forgot to include a content warning when distributing ARCs. I think I got an email about something to that effect and they apologized a lot for forgetting to do so. I feel bad that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I hoped because I also ended up winning a physical copy of the ARC in a giveaway and…womp womp.

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