A Royal Quest, By Mary Lide, Warner, 384 pp. $15.95
A BEAUTIFULLY told tale of love and war, intrigue and betrayal, A Royal Quest takes us to 12th-century England and France during the tumultuous reign of Henry II. The narrator is Urien the Bard, page to the Norman family whose castle lies on the border between England and Wales. The poetic rhythm of this medieval romance is set on the very first page. Urien writes: "It is a long story I tell, a story with many threads . . . Ambition, hate, revenge, the dark side of this world are woven here, and honor, love, loyalty, their counterpart. These are the things I speak of, and of deeds, great and ignoble, and of the men, ignoble and great, who achieved them."
The principal characters in this intricate tapestry are Olwen, passionate daughter of Lord Raoul of Sedgemont and Ann of Cambray, and Taliesin, a Celtic prince who seeks retribution from King Henry for the wrongs his family has endured. Henry has troubles of his own. His sons, at the instigation of their mother, the devious Eleanor of Aquitaine, seek to dethrone him. Olwen's father is forced to neutrality in these internecine struggles, for the king has appointed him overlord of the lands on the war-torn Welsh border. Olwen and her brothers become enmeshed in King Henry's French wars; there they encounter Taliesin pursuing his own mission, and numerous dangers and hairbeadth escapes result.
A Royal Quest is the third in a chronicle which began with Ann of Cambray and continued with Gifts of the Queen, and Mary Lide, historian and poet, is too eloquent a writer to overlook.
CHILD OF THE NORTHERN SPRING, by Persia Woolley, Poseidon, 428 pp. $17.95
IT IS WITH a slight jolt that one moves from the stately props and courtly dialogue of A Royal Quest to the colloquial language that Persia Woolley uses in her account of the Arthurian legend as seen through the eyes of Guinevere, herein called Gwen. It takes only a few pages, however, for the reader also to think of her as Gwen, a free-spirited Celtic girl more interested in horses than in needlework and reluctant to leave the northern kingdom over which her father reigns. But she has been chosen by Merlin to be the bride of Arthur, the newly crowned High King, and she accepts the role as her duty to the dream of a united Britain.
Child of the Northern Spring takes us from Gwen's carefree girlhood through her 16th year when, escorted by a retinue sent by Arthur, she travels south to Winchester to be wed. It is on the journey that she learns, from Merlin and from Arthur's trusted lieutenant, Bedivere, the story of how he was chosen, the great battle in which he triumphed and the political intrigues raging among his client kingdoms.
All these contending forces come to life in vivid anecdotes and in the dramatic encounters Gwen experiences as the retinue slowly makes its way through the varying landscapes of England. In this engagingly readable tale, we are offered imaginative new versions of such events as the claiming of Excalibur and the death of the Druid high priestess Vivian. And once again we are captivated by the magic of the legend that has so long fed our appetite for pageantry and romantic adventure.
ALSO GEORGIANA, By Alison Harding, St. Martin's, 383 pp., $18.95
TWO main threads run through Also Georgiana. One is Georgiana's slow unraveling of the mystery of her origins, the other her determination to be recognized as a serious artist. Georgiana grows up in the ambiguous role of half-servant, half-foster child in the household of a venal and domineering lawyer. At 17, she is summoned to the Cumberland home of her Great-aunt Elizabeth, whose brother, Sir Henry Curwen, refuses to acknowledge Georgiana as his granddaughter. From a packet of long-withheld letters addressed to Georgiana by the mother she has never known, our heroine gradually learns that she is the illegitimate child of Sir Henry's oldest daughter, that her mother, prevented from marrying Georgiana's father, later married another man and gave him five children who died in infancy and, just before her own death, gave birth to a sixth child, a boy named Pip. (This is the Pip of Dickens' Great Expectations who, though he plays no role in this novel, provides the title. In Dickens' novel, Pip reads the inscription on the gravestone of his parents: "Also Georgiana, wife of the Above," and says: "Also Georgiana. That's my mother.")
Georgiana is no luckier in love than her mother was. Nor does she have much luck when she moves to London to pursue a career in art. Nineteenth-century England is no place for a serious woman artist. Her application to enroll in a Royal Academy art school is rejected, for "courses are not available to female artists." Women are limited to decorating china or executing demure still-life sketches. The French attitude is less constraining, and it is in France that she attains a measure of recognition.
This is a slow-moving tale that is redeemed by the author s painterly eye. The style is lyrical and the evocation of Victorian mores authentic. It is probably for this that this first novel was nominated for England's Booker Prize.
AMBITIONS, By Audrey Howard, 540 pp., $19.95
DEVOTEES OF old-fashioned melodrama will probably enjoy following the entwined fortunes of Lacy Hemingway and Rose O Malley in Ambitions, a complex tale of life in Victorian Liverpool. Lacy, youngest child of a shipping magnate, is intrigued by her father s trade. Rose, eldest of the 12 children of the Irish immigrants Sean and Bridie O Malley, is 10 when she comes to work as a scullery maid in the Hemingway household. A dreadful accident that Lacy witnesses -- the dockside death of Sean O Malley during the launching of a Hemingway ship -- marks the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two girls. Into their lives enter two men, Captain James Osborne who seeks to marry Lacy when his army service is completed, and villainous Luke Marlowe who schemes to make Lacy his wife so as to gain the captaincy of the newest Hemingway vessel. When Lacy s father learns that Luke has seduced his daughter, he disowns her and dismisses Rose, and the two go off together.
Despite a series of misfortunes, Lacy and Rose manage to raise some capital with which to start a shipping business. Guile and an occasional bit of blackmail help them get their firm under way, but they are soon thwarted by the unwillingness of brokers to do business with women. Returning to Liverpool after seven years of arduous military service, James Osborne resolves that dilemma by acting as their front. Another dilemma remains, however: both Lacy and Rose are in love with James. Other sadnesses lie in wait before this overlong opus draws to its predictable close. But although given to excess verbiage, Ambitions reads smoothly and will prove popular with those who like stories crammed with dramatic incident. :: Frances A. Koestler is a New York writer.