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Beautifully written - but not for the cynical!
on 12 March 2011
The Court of the Midnight King is set in the fifteenth century, during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of English history (close on the heels of the late 16th century), which is why I followed up on my friend's recommendation.
Although ninety-five percent of the story is told from the point of view of its medieval characters, the narrative is interrupted at intervals by brief scenes set in the present day. August, a history undergraduate, having become obsessed with Richard III after watching a DVD of Laurence Olivier in the Shakespeare play, starts having vivid visions of the lives of two young people, Kate and Raphael, whose world is a 15th-century parallel universe seemingly contemporaneous with our own. For them, magic is real and a matriarchal goddess cult still survives alongside Christianity, albeit under increasing pressure of persecution. As the story unfolds, we see a very different Richard of Gloucester from the one portrayed by Shakespeare: handsome, unswervingly loyal to his brother Edward, loved by practically everyone who meets him. And this is where the book started to go awry for me.
Everyone (apart from his political enemies) loves Richard. August the undergraduate is besotted by him, neglecting her 12th-century coursework to investigate the contradictory evidence in the historical record and fantasising about nocturnal visitations from her dark prince. Raphael idolises Gloucester, who took him in after his family were killed during the conflict between Edward IV and Henry VI. And Kate, mother of Richard's illegitimate son following a brief but passionate teenage liaison, is too infatuated with Gloucester to marry Raphael, even though she loves him and it is the best way to secure her family's estate.
Now, I'm as much a sucker for an angsty romance and unresolved sexual tension as the next girl - and I confess that the scenes between Kate and Richard were some of my favourites - but the unremitting adoration and somewhat naive pro-Ricardian stance (as in, Richard was far too good a man to have murdered his nephews) began to cloy after a few chapters. And this is a substantial book.
It didn't help that the framing story interfered with my suspension of disbelief. Every few chapters I was being reminded by the author that the story I was reading was apparently the imaginings of a modern-day girl (I say apparently, because in the end the two worlds do meet). It felt like I was reading Ricardian fan-fiction, with Kate as August's self-insertion (or is August the author's self-insertion?). Good fan-fiction, but with that irritating note of adolescent wish-fulfillment.
Add to this the (from my perspective) wearisome amount of time devoted to the female characters' personal lives at the expense of the turbulent politics of this alternate history Wars of the Roses, the anachronistic proto-feminism of the Wiccan-like Motherlodge , and not forgetting costume descriptions that sounded uncannily like Richard et al had been dressed by The Black Rose rather than Berman's and Nathan's - and my cynical side began to get in the way of my enjoyment. There were times, heading towards the middle of this book, when I could have cheerfully thrown it across the room!
It's a pity, because The Court of the Midnight King is beautifully written, evoking the ethereal beauty of the English landscape and carrying its scholarship and period knowledge lightly. I really wanted to like it, and by the end I kind of did (mainly because I can't resist a satisfying HEA), but I'm not sure I'll pick up another of Warrington's books in the future.