Review: The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna

The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna

Timy reviews The Cleaving, a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends by Juliet E. McKenna.

An eARC was received via NetGalley from AngryRobot in exchange for an honest review.

About the Book
Series: standaloneGenre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Date of Publishing: April 11, 2023Trigger Warnings: rape, blood, death, violence
Page count: 400Publisher: AngryRobot
Possible The Sound of Madness Reading Challenge prompts:
  • Free Your Mind
  • Justice
  • I’m Still Here
  • You Look Better When I’m Drunk
  • Have a Little Faith
  • Family Portrait
  • Heavy is the Crown
  • Cotton Eye Joe
  • Centuries
Book Blurb
The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna

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.


I’m going to start with ripping off the bandage and say upfront that I DNFd The Cleaving 52% into it. Not because it was horribly bad, but because I was kind of bored and I was not invested in the characters or the plot, at all. But let’s take a closer look at things.

The Cleaving was my first book by Juliet E. McKenna, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was on the fence about whether to request an eARC, because I usually don’t gel well with feminist stuff, and also because I’m very picky due to having limited time to read in the first place. Eventually, the history and mythology buff in me won, and I decided to give it a go. Side note, while I’m familiar with the names and some of the stories within the Arthurian legends, my knowledge is pretty patchy as I never dug deeper. Honestly, the bulk of my knowledge comes from the Merlin TV mini series from the late 90s, so… yeah, I wouldn’t call myself an authority.

The Cleaving tells its story through Nimue’s POV. It’s an interesting choice, because on one hand, the way the story is being told, she is there for most of the events, being a first-hand witness and thus can give us all the details. On the other hand, we don’t learn much about her as a person and that makes it hard to get invested in her story. She also comes across as a very passive character, only following the events, and reacting to whatever happens, but never being proactive which makes reading about her a frustrating experience.

Since Nimue is acting as a servant to Queen Ygraine in the beginning, and later to Morgana from what I could tell by the point at which I DNFd, the story is mostly focused on the female characters of the Arthurian legends – Ygraine, Morgana, and I’m guessing Guinevere later on. The story is told from how Uther deceives Ygraine, following their marriage, how Arthur becomes king with the help of Merlin, and beyond. As I never read to the end, I’m not sure where the story ends, but I’m guessing sometime around his death. Arthur being still very young and under Merlin’s influence, it’s hard to tell yet what type of character he’ll become, but up to the 52% mark, we rarely got to see him, and the other male characters, except Gorlois, Ygraine’s first husband are depicted as villains. This is to say, they are everything that’s bad, and the women are everything that’s good, and there aren’t many grey areas. In my experience, people are rarely only good or only bad, and I generally prefer characters with depth. Which these characters lack.

Another thing that bothered me was that there is just not enough worldbuilding. Things happen and we get just enough info for context, but it feels like those painted backgrounds on stage, they give a good enough illusion, but they are still a far cry from being real. It didn’t help to get myself immersed.

The Cleaving, in the end, proved to be a disappointment for me. It’s a shame, because I wanted to like it, and it seemed for a while that I might, but in the end, it seemed to be better to part ways. If you like Arthurian legends, and feminist retellings, then you might end up being a better audience for The Cleaving than I.

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