Tuesday, 2 September 2003

The Court of the Midnight King

Freda Warrington
Pocket Books
ISBN: 0-743-41567-1

Take one historical novel. Add a spoonful of Shakespeare, a handful of alternate universes and a sprinkling of ritual magic and take with a pinch of salt. There you have the recipe for 'The Court Of The Midnight King' and it's a surprisingly tasty dish.

In re-telling the tale of England's most shadowy figure, Richard the Third, Freda Warrington covers controversial ground. To this day, historians argue as to whether Richard was as evil as he is portrayed by a dozen sources, Shakespeare himself being the first and foremost and the only sure thing is that we will never know for sure.

Warrington herself seems set on acting as antidote to Richard's detractors, painting a picture of a noble, pious man forced to take the throne for the good of the country rather than out of any particular ambition. Upon the death of his brother Edward, Richard is appointed Protector of his nephew - the new 12-year-old king, also called Edward. But the boy is under the control of his mother, the Queen and her family, a corrupt, decadent clan and Richard sets the young king aside rather than see England fall into their hands.

When Edward and his brother die under mysterious circumstances, Richard is blamed. As he struggles to deal with a web of rumours destroying his popularity with nobles and commoners alike his enemies gather, massing their forces. It all comes to a head at the Battle of Bosworth Field where in reality Richard died, abandoned by his followers and out-fought by the Tudors who took the throne after him.

The inevitability of Richard's death in battle could have made this a rather depressing, pointless tale but ‘The Court Of The Midnight King' takes place in an alternate reality, one remarkably similar to ours but different enough that the future can not be taken for granted. In Warrington's world, a pagan sisterhood exists alongside Christianity, worshipping a goddess of nature and practising ritual sorcery, harnessing elemental spirits and paying court to the faerie.

It might seem that such additions would clash horribly with reality but they are woven into the fabric of the setting so skilfully that they seem entirely natural. The conflict between the sisterhood and the vastly more influential Christian church is fascinating and well written, something which would make a good topic for a novel in itself but is sadly only touched on here.

In 'The Court Of The Midnight King', the events of the War of the Roses are spun out from the viewpoint of Raphael, one of Richard's most loyal knights, and Lady Katherine, a minor noblewoman and pagan priestess whose life comes to revolve around a chance meeting with Richard in her youth. As the book progresses, Raphael begins to receive visions of Richard performing villainous deeds and of his future infamy. In a neat twist, those visions are paraphrased from scenes in Shakespeare's play, portraying the King as an incestuous child-killer.

As Raphael struggles with his loyalty to Richard, another set of visions is plaguing a modern-day history student from our reality but these visions show the good Richard from Warrington's alternate universe. Though confusing at first, this web of visions and possible futures enhances the action in the physical world and becomes clear as the book draws to a close, thanks in no small way to the clarity of the writing.
The major characters are all well described, their motivations and personalities clearly labelled, though naturally Richard himself remains somewhat mysterious throughout. While it is clear that Warrington was determined to present the King in a somewhat better light than is traditionally thought, the 'alternate universe' of the novel allows us to make up our own minds - the author merely uses the facts to show how things could have been, rather than attempting to force the reader to conform to her point of view.

The only time Warrington allows her personal opinions to surface in the book is in the Sisterhood of Auset, which despite slotting smoothly into the otherwise historically correct novel seems to have a distinctly feminist flavour to it. Women of that era had virtually no influence and certainly no overt power but this doesn't seem to agree with Warrington's philosophy so she created the Sisterhood.

'The Court Of The Midnight King' is well researched, all of its events and dates correct and the placement of characters such as the Duke of Buckingham consistent with history as we know it.

The battles of the War of the Roses take a relatively small role in the novel that belies their significance in event to follow but they are well described and show a good understanding of tactics and the chaos of combat. Likewise, the treachery and intrigues of the King's court are well portrayed, the myriad twists and turns in the plot both surprising and exciting.

Despite the occasional foray into rather suspect mysticism, particularly towards the end of the novel, this alternative portrayal of an unpopular figure blends fantasy and history smoothly and in such a way that the two harmonise rather than clash, creating a novel that is both enjoyable to read and historically sound. As such, 'The Court Of The Midnight King' finds a place on my 'intellectually stimulating' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com