Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

I adored Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips' playful novel of Greek gods living in contemporary London, so it was with much anticipation that I began reading her latest, The Table of Less Valued Knights. And yes, it is funny. After a few chapters, however, I found myself reluctant to pick it up again. Humour is appealing, but I need substance, too. I decided to give it one more chance before returning it to the library. And then everything fell into place.

It's a brilliant social satire. Misogyny, gender inequality and sexual violence are all included; plenty of substance there! Gay and transgender issues are also integral to the story.

The action begins at King Arthur's court in Camelot, with a bunch of knights chomping at the bit for quests. Sir Dorian was the fastest one to leap at the chance to search for Queen Martha, kidnapped on her wedding night. Sir Humphrey, who had been demoted from the prestigious Round Table to the Table of Less Valued Knights, is the only one left in the room late in the evening when another quest opportunity presents itself. Lady Elaine needs help to find her abducted fiance.

Later, Humphrey has second thoughts about having volunteered for the job. "I'm not even supposed to leave Camelot, let alone be gazumping [Sir Dorian's] quest." Gazumping! I love the way Phillips threw that word in there. It's fitting, because the knights treat the quests like hot properties, and a good example of the novel's style, incorporating contemporary sensibilities and terminology into Arthurian fantasy.

More examples of style:

"He waited. Time passed. In another man doubts would have set in. In Edwin, doubts presented themselves, decided that this was not a hospitable environment, and left again."

"Elaine's home village, close to the tuft border, had seen better days, although even in those better days it probably still looked as if it had been put together using an avalanche and some string."

"The next hamlet they came to [...] was a tiny place, even more deprived than Elaine's village had been. Humphrey had seen houses of cards more robust."

Sometimes the farce stretches a bit too far:

Martha "headed for the nearest village, a rather bleak place where the houses were still black with soot from the last time marauders had tried to burn it down, which, had they succeeded, would probably have been an improvement. The inn was called the Dipsomaniac Camel, and she supposed that the sign might have been of a camel, but she had never seen a camel, and neither, she was fairly certain, had the sign painter."

Comedy is tricky, and Phillips manages to be lavish with it while controlling multiple story threads that come together in a satisfying conclusion.

The sexism inherent in Arthurian tales - damsels are the ones in distress; gallant knights come to their rescue - is turned on its head in The Table of Less Valued Knights. Women prove very much capable of looking out for themselves. Laurie Penny, in Unspeakable Things, writes, "Men have sex; women are sex." This attitude is strongly embodied in a couple of characters who receive their comeuppance (it is a fantasy novel, after all). It's presented with such a light touch that it took me a while to appreciate the feminist strength of this novel.

The Table of Less Valued Knights was longlisted for the 2015 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction.

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