Everyone knows the basic legend of King Arthur, how he acquired his sword from either the stone or the Lady of the Lake, and would later found Camelot, ruling with his knights of the Round Table. This story has been adapted hundreds of times before, and the latest adaptation of this tale is Cursed, written by Thomas Wheeler (The Arcanum) and illustrated by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), published by Simon and Schuster.

Cursed is a prequel of sorts to the well-known Arthurian legend. Main character Nimue wields the “Sword of Power” as well as mysterious powers that go beyond her Fey lineage, and meets up with younger versions of familiar faces, such as Arthur, Morgan le Fay, Gawain, Lancelot, and others over the course of her journey to return the legendary sword to Merlin. Along the way, she finds herself leading Fey refugees and navigating bloody political conflicts.

The story is an exciting take on the legend. Most of what I know about the Arthurian tales is through adaptations meant for kids, which tend to have Arthur as a preteen in an unfortunate but relatively benign situation. Somehow he accidentally dislodges the throne (maybe by falling against it), and ascends to the throne without (much) incident.

Cursed is very much not that sort of story, even though it is intended for ages fourteen and up. It fleshes out a gritty Medieval world (possibly pre-Medieval, the era is a little gray) with all the realistic grime, magic and the essentially racial tensions that plague the magical (Fey) folk, and religious/political entanglings that are of course damaging the general populace more than the royalty.

There is a deep rooting in actual history, referencing Roman ruins, Mongol invaders, and Boudica. It brings a lot of life to the world and makes the stakes of this venture even more clear. There are factions of people who still cling to the past which is not always understood, presumably thanks to the lull of the dark ages. As Nimue and others travel through the world and interact with things that may not be fully explained but simply are, it feels like the real world.

The story never suffers for these small open details, as they aren’t the most important. Sometimes the use of historical events and ruins would give me pause because I’d be trying to work out possible dates for Nimue’s story at hand. As nobody really knows when the real Arthur lived (or if there even was a real Arthur), it wasn’t really an issue for me, just something to mull over that occasionally distracted me from the story at hand.

One of my favorite illustrations in the book is the spread for chapter nine. (Source: Simon and Schuster)

As for the story beyond the worldbuilding, once the action starts, it never really stops. Even when the pace has slowed down at moments and we’re waiting for conflicts to begin, the tension keeps things electric. Although many strands of narrative come together and apart, it never becomes confusing, as each piece has its own particular stamp and involved characters until the climax. The domestic conflicts are well-balanced with further-reaching issues, and the book does an effective job at showing how these things are inextricably intertwined. It is definitely one of those books that as you continue, you can’t believe that the story will resolve in “X” amount of pages. Yet it pretty much does. Really!

The design of the books and Frank Miller’s art within adds much to the story. To start, the dust jacket has a silhouette of Nimue, holding the Sword of Power (it is never referred to as Excalibur), marked in silver. The title is entwined with a branch, a motif which is repeated in the chapter headers throughout the book. It’s definitely eye-catching! The cover underneath is plain black with a silvered Sword in the center. It is hard to say whether I prefer the book with or without the dusk jacket.

Of course, the art inside is iconic Frank Miller all the way. I haven’t seen much of his art outside of his Batman series (The Dark Knight Returns and Year One), and although I like it there well enough, it seems like Miller had more freedom with this book and got to infuse more of his personality into these illustrations. The art is a great mix of modern-day and Medieval design, for lack of a better term, it’s very rock-and-roll, very Ralph Bakshi, Fire and Ice (minus the scantily clad women, Nimue is very much not that, thankfully).

There are even occasionally color illustrations in the text. Many would make great posters and I’d love to see the full art for one spread in particular.

Nimue retrieves the sword. (Source: Flickering Myth)

I think the one thing that really stopped me–and I mean a full stop, not just a pause as some of the historical references caused–was the end. It seems like the book is a complete unit, but it has an open ending. Now, open endings aren’t bad, but the rest of the book feels so solid, I feel sort of tepid about the story ending on little teasers. Of course, this book could be a prequel to the common Arthurian legend so the open-endedness could simply be pointing to that. The book has also been adapted for a Netflix show (Spring 2020), so the openness could be there as something to be worked with with a well-received show.

Ultimately, this isn’t a huge issue. This is just a pet peeve of mine, as, like I said above, the rest of the book feels so thought out and so solid that this aspect almost feels out of place. Of course, the things teased are intriguing in their own right, and I would like to see the teasers go somewhere if they’re already there, should there be a sequel or a story continuation within the Netflix show. I definitely have some theories about the end, and a take on Arthur’s rise would be interesting to see in this universe. I’m just going to have to see how things develop, I suppose! A direct sequel could work for Cursed, but it isn’t necessary.

All in all, this story is a much livelier take on the Arthurian legend. It isn’t really even necessary to know that much about the legend at all, though it’s hard for me to imagine the high school target audience not being aware of any aspect of the legend. It could very well be my favorite adaptation of the legend, because I really have only seen adaptations that are meant for kids that don’t address the strife of the (general) era.

It is rated fourteen and older, which I would say is appropriate but should probably be tempered by reading ability. I can see it as a potential challenge for a high school reader both content-wise and in terms of length. This really depends on the individual who picks it up, not the book itself. That said, the reader who sticks with Cursed will really enjoy it, regardless of age.

Cursed will be available in bookstores starting October 1. Its Netflix adaptation will be available to stream “everywhere” in Spring 2020, exact date not announced yet.

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