Thomas D Lee
Orbit, 23 May 2023
Available as: HB, 534pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the Perilous Times blogtour and to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of the book to consider for review.
Drake is in his hammock an' a thousand miles away, sleeping until his country needs him... but Arthur sleeps in England, resting with his knights in a cave beneath Alderney Edge - a farmer once saw him when the wizard who wove the magic needed a last white horse. Or perhaps elsewhere, in Scotland where his seat overlooks the Parliament building, or Wales - or on the Island of Avalon, where the sweet apples grow, or before the High Altar at Glastonbury Abbey (but they dug him up!) There are hills, stones and barrows across this land associated with the sleeping king and while the stories about his life are confused and contradictory, all agree that he saved Britain - or tried to.
So go the legends, telling us that we are special, that Britan is guarded, protected. Whether Arthur is the exemplar of a mythical code of chivalry, or the leader of a post-Roman* warband, hardly matters. What he means changes from age to age as we change, and he can equally be a New Age archetype, the defender of the Greenwood and a spirit of of the ancient land...
...Or we can look closer, as Thomas D Lee does in this story of a gathering apocalypse, environmental, yes, but also hastened by the grey-faced oilmen and warmongers. In such times, do we need a war leader? Does Pendragon's record actually stand much scrutiny? Perilous Times is one of several books I've read lately that take a sceptical look. Here, things are narrated by Kay, Arthur's stepbrother, but we also meet Mariam, a young women of the early 21st century who's definitely not waiting for a white knight to gallop up to her on his horse.
Just as well because Kay isn't white and he doesn't have a horse (for most of the book). Kay has been bound by Merlin's magic to rise from the earth when summoned, or when England is in danger, and over the centuries he's become accustomed to clawing his way up from the mud to face slaughter, often at the command of those same grey faced men, one of whom also features in the story. Others of Arthur's court have the same ability - suffer the same fate - and a theme here that Lee explores intelligently is the limit of loyalty, and the habit we have of surrendering choice for the comfort of a strong leader who thinks they have the answers.
In a world going all to pieces that's a comforting thing to be able to do, but is it actually helpful - for Kay or for the bemused band of women she is part of, women who seek both to ameliorate the conditions of those suffering from climate collapse, war, and persecution and to put an end to the evils that cause them. As in Arthur's day, many factions jostle for power in the land, not least mercenaries and fanatics.
Lee navigates this complicated moral landscape with considerable skill, deftly blending the personal and the political and rooting them in a landscape - whether an apocalyptic Manchester or a hellish metal Avalon - that has heft and depth, not least when Kay or Lancelot are seeing it through fifteen hundred year old memories of Mamucium or Londinium.
There is though more to these fascinating characters than their status as legends walking the modern world. We come to learn how both have devoted their lives - many lifetimes - to the grubby business of Empire, to the belief that they had a purpose, that they mattered and could make a difference. There are centuries of horror locked in Kay's head, so much so that at time he welcomes another death and his return to the mud, but also centuries of experience. It's patchy, iffy experience and he doesn't always understand the modern world (who does?) but he can also bring some perspective and he can spot a bad idea when he sees one.
So - let's get the (war)band together for one last time, sharpen the sword edges and form up the shieldwall because, yes, these are Perilous Times indeed.
I just loved this book - it's a truly modern take on Arthur and the Matter of Britain, a long-needed updating to counteract the seizing of our national myths by those with dubious purposes, but more than that, just a brilliant, involving read (and great fun to see some hints and allusions to other books I've read and loved - not least the tarnished iron gates below Alderney Edge). Strongly recommended (though there is one death in this book that I'm not sure I'll forgive Lee for...)
For more information about Perilous Times, see the other stops on the blogtour - or you can go to the publisher's website here.
*We don't use the "D**k A**s" term on this blog.