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Priestess of Avalon
By Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson

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Priestess of Avalon
By Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson
Thorndike Press - Large Print, (2001)
ISBN: 0-7862-3653-1
Genre: Fantasy

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 18, 2001

Marion Zimmer Bradley has written several novels devoted to the ancient goddess-based religion of Celtic Britain that worshiped the Great Mother. One of these books is The Forest House, which covers the period when the Roman's were first starting to conquer Britain and illustrates how their presence altered the course of British religious life. Chronologically, Priestess of Avalon comes next, and it takes place in a world in which the Roman's are firmly intrenched in Britain and a world in which Christianity is rapidly gaining a foothold. This is followed by The Mists of Avalon, in which Bradley retold the legends surrounding King Arthur and the mythical land of Avalon - from a decidedly female, and goddess-centered, perspective.

In Priestess of Avalon, women and how a goddess-centered religion embowers them takes center stage. This is done by following the Eilan, from her birth until her death, and the impact her religion had upon her life and those around her. Eilan's mother was Rian, a High Priestess of Avalon and her father was a British ruler named Prince Coelius. Eilan's mother died in childbirth and she was raised in her father's household until she was ten. To her father, and the Roman's that inhabited Britain at the time, she was known as Helena. Throughout this novel Eilan's name changes denote the changes in status - and power. As Eilan she is empowered as a woman in her own right, as Helena she is seen as daughter, wife or mother, never as an independent individual. Eilan stays with her father until she is ten, at which time she is sent to Avalon to study for the priesthood. The story covers her life on Avalon, her training, and the challenges she faced becoming a priestess. It also chronicles her fall from grace, when she is exiled from Avalon after falling in love with a Roman officer, and for disobeying the will of the goddess she followed by violating the Beltine right.

The book, follows Eilan as she matures from maiden to mother, and it illustrates how, just as Eilan is changes, so to does the world. Pagan practices are being suborned by a new religion, Christianity, which is a male-centric faith, one which robbed women of the rights and powers they had within a female-centric faith. The book takes us full circle, and we see Eilan as an old woman, mature and well versed in the ways of the world - a woman who learns that the power to determine her own future was, and always will be, in her (or any woman's) own hands. Which is made clear when Eilan learns that, "there is no god, and no goddess, only the power of the Mother within..."(pg 624). As Eilan travels throughout Europe and the Middle East, Bradley offers the reader a glimpse at the many faces that the goddess had throughout Europe, and the various guises and roles that she was given in various cultures.

This is an intriguing tale. Eilan is very, very loosely based on the historical figure of Helena who was the concubine of Constantius, a man who was to become a Roman Emperor. She was also the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity. She is regarded by many Christians, especially Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, as a Saint. She was beatified, in part, for having converted (it is thought) her son Constantine to Christianity - an idea that is contrary to this book. The book begins with a brief overview of what little is known about Helena, and offers a list of the various characters to be found within the pages of the book. This book was written by Bradley and Diana L. Paxson. However, it was left to Paxson to finish the book, as Bradley died before it was completed. Bradley fans will be pleased to find that Bradley's voice and style can be clearly heard throughout this book, although Paxson's influence is obvious.

Personally, I feel that The Mists of Avalon was her best work of fantasy and without doubt, in the realm of science fiction, she outdid herself with her Darkover novels. While I do not feel that this is her best work, after all their can only be one number one, Priestess of Avalon is nonetheless an outstanding book. Bradley has a knack for creating powerful female characters - no matter what genre she is writing in, and she is a fantastic story teller. This book offers a little something for everyone, a little magic, a little priestess-power, a little Christianity, a little history, and mostly, a whole lot of entertainment.

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