The Cleaving, by Juliet E. McKenna

16 Apr 2023

The Book

The Cleaving
Pages: 375
Age Group: Adult
Published on 11 Apr 2023
Publisher: Angry Robot
Historical Fantasy
Available on:


Four women, four destinies – the future of King Arthur's court…A new, 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.

Juliet McKenna is an expert on medieval history and warfare and brings this expertise as well as her skills as a fantasy writer to this epic standalone novel.  

My Review

The Cleaving is a feminist retelling based on the Arthurian myths, written by Juliet E. McKenna, told from the eyes of Nimué, and covering the stories of other women whose lives were affected by Merlin and Arthur's influence: Morgana, Ygraine, and Guinevere. Women whose stories haven't been told from their perspective.

In the dark age of England, the names of Arthur and Merlin have a prominent role; Merlin foresaw a future where Arthur being the king will avoid dark times, so he will use his magic to secure it. Pendragon's ambitions, first in the Uther's figure, and later in Arthur's, will drive several wars among English tribes.

And here is where the role of women is portrayed excellently by McKenna. War is not their business, they are wives, administrators; they were relegated to the background, living to the constructs of their time. This is a novel about what means to be a woman in a time of war and violence. 

Nimué has access to magic, and while she's certainly powerful, she refuses to use it for anything that's not healing. Magic has a cost, and certainly, not every time she could help those she wants to protect.
As we are in a heavy character-based story, we will have many that will be memorable, putting the spotlight on those women that were directly related to Arthur, and how sometimes they were hurt by the ambitions of power.
Morgana is probably one of the most interesting, in my opinion, as she's practically the one that accepts the power she has and uses it in her own interests, bringing the conflict to the court; interaction between women is the key piece in this plot.

Structured in several subplots, the pacing is relatively slow, becoming a slow burn, where McKenna builds in order to create a climax at the end of each subplot, something that I personally enjoyed.

As a lover of Arthurian myths and retellings, picking The Cleaving was a no-brain for me. If you are into character-driven plots and slow-burn, I would recommend it to you. McKenna has created a great novel, a quality view of an unknown aspect of the myths. 

The Author/s

Juliet E. McKenna

Juliet E. McKenna

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy.

She's currently writing modern fantasy rooted in the ancient myths and folklore of the British Isles. The series so far consists of The Green Man's Heir, The Green Man's Foe, The Green Man's Silence, The Green Man's Challenge, and The Green Man's Gift. She has also written an Arthurian novel, The Cleaving, to be published in 2023.

Juliet has re-issued her backlist as ebooks in association with Wizard’s Tower Press as well as bringing out original fiction. Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom offers readers a wholly new and different fantasy world to explore.

She reviews for the web and print magazines notably Interzone, and promotes SF&Fantasy by blogging on book trade issues. She also teaches creative writing from time to time. Her forays into shorter fiction include dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction.