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The Court of the Midnight King

by Freda Warrington

(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 cover scanKing 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 gloss.

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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