The Court of the Midnight King
(Pocket Books, £7.99, 575 pages, paperback, published 2 June 2003.)
August, a present-day History student familiar with popular culture's
image of the evil
Richard, starts having dreams about a noble, just and well-loved Richard
III that soon overwhelm her waking thoughts. Meanwhile Raphael, a confidant
to the good King Richard, experiences scenes from Shakespeare's 'Richard
the Third' in the form of violent nightmares that test his belief in
his king. The connection between these two characters is stronger and
stranger than might at first appear.
The Court of the Midnight King has the look of alternative history
about it, and yet there's nothing especially revolutionary about suggesting
Richard III might have been a good king after all. It's already quite
widely accepted that, since our only original sources on the matter
are Tudor historians and Shakespeare's play -- written for a Tudor monarch,
lest we forget, and therefore inevitably subject to some distortion
-- we can reasonably assume that the last Yorkist king has had a bad
press. Ultimately we can't know how good a king Richard was, but we
can take the political fiction with a pinch of salt and give Richard
a certain amount of leeway. Midnight King doesn't really diverge
from a history we would recognise until the last couple of chapters;
for the preceding 500 pages, straightforward historical drama must carry
us along. This drama is leavened with a few fantastic touches -- the
medieval conflict between the Catholic Church and the "old ways" is
played up here, with a state-sanctioned Motherlodge in direct competition
with the church for political influence; a heraldic animal called the
graylix makes several appearances; finally, of course, there are the
vision-like dreams -- but these are woven into the story in a way that
makes them seem natural, rather than making the whole story seem peculiar.
There's inevitably an element of wish fulfilment in a lot of alternative
history fiction. That's not to suggest that scores of authors earnestly
wish that Hitler had won World War Two, of course, but more often than
not there's a chance for a favoured historical figure or a plucky authorial
stand-in to shine, to put wrongs to rights and establish a better future.
Christopher Priest's The Separation sent this up somewhat, but
here Warrington plays it straight, with her fifteenth-century trio of
Richard, Raphael, and Motherlodge member Lady Katherine Lytton, and
with her earnest modern-day narrator. She almost takes it too far: Richard
can do no wrong, it seems, committing virtuous acts left, right and
centre, then agonising about them for hours to his advisors. The romantic
denouement that hoves inexorably into view towards the end of the book
is another step towards what I hesitate to describe as Hollywoodisation.
But Richard's rehabilitation into respectable history does make for
satisfying reading, and Warrington very deftly reconciles her divergent
history with our own. If only it didn't have quite such a celluloid
The prose presents no such concerns. Warrington's prose is literary
velvet, luxuriating in colour and texture. This alone ought to hold
the reader's interest for 575 pages. And although Richard's a little
too squeaky-clean, while his Lancastrian and Tudor opposites lean slightly
too far in the other direction, the medieval characters overall are
depicted with such detail and vividness that they are believable almost
in spite of themselves. August and her contemporaries are not such strong
characters, but then they only have one or two dozen pages in total
in which to establish themselves.
Idealised but well realised, The Court of the Midnight King
is seductive, sensuous and rich. A bit like Richard himself.
Review by John Toon.
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