Perilous Times by Thomas D Lee: A Review
A New Fantasy Star is Born
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Publishing, as you may have noticed if you’ve spent more than a millisecond in the company of books, loves a good trend, and in the world of fantasy one of those current trends is Arthurian retellings. You can see why; that era of entwined myth and fact is ripe for analysis and interpretation. You can do it from a diversity angle: explore the racial diversity and queerness of the era, whether historically based or a literary reimagining; you can do it from a revisionist angle (“maybe some of them were dicks”) or you can go deep into the pagan, mystical elements of it (Green Knight it, if you like). Alternatively, you can combine the Knights of the Round Table with the modern world, making a political allegory, plonking chivalry against whatever the hell you call Modern Britain right now in this moment of pre-apocalyptic head-in-the-sand chaos.
Or, if you’re Arthurian PhD student Thomas D Lee, you can do all of these at once and ride this impressive wave of ambition all the way to the summit. And the summit is the right word here, because this is a very, very good book; a modern literary masterpiece that offers one of the definitive current takes on what Britain was, is and will be while also being extremely funny and not a little bonkers in the best British tradition.
The plot is at once monstrously complicated and gloriously simple. Arthurian Knights have returned to save a future climate change-wracked Britain. Boom. Done. Within that sentence though is a heap more, a collision of mythic past and dystopian future. Britain is half flooded, London mostly underwater, great lakes and marshes across parts of the country. The infrastructure and government of Britain has largely crumbled as a result. Security has been outsourced to the knowingly named private security firm Saxon (the invaders of King Arthur’s time, if you fell asleep at school) and Essex has been sold to China (don’t laugh, it will happen). The North and the Celtic lands, meanwhile, are independent or attempting to be so, with a riotous mix of Welsh self proclaimed kings, Mancunian communists and St George-style racists all struggling to survive in a land of famine and climate madness.
Into this mayhem come the Knights of the Round Table. Thanks to magic, they are reborn from resurrection trees dotted around the country whenever Britain is in peril, tasked by the government of the time with helping with its latest crisis. Used to being brought back to fight wars and suchlike, they are now confronted with their most unusual test yet: saving the world from a carbon crisis and a government who seems to be trying to escape it rather than solve it.
The scale of this all is so grand and chaotic I hardly know where to begin. So let’s begin with Pratchett. I imagine every review has resorted to the P word, but it’s hard not to. The more obvious comic elements are there: there’s a racist called Barry who’s turned into a comedy squirrel. Fairies creep around in ice cream vans. These are the kind of things a lot of people associate with the comic fantasy master. But Pratchett was much more than that, and I don’t use his name lightly. He used fantastical elements to make sharp political allegories (more on that later) and he had a strong vein of compassion, even in a grim world. That last bit is really noticeable here. The principal knight we meet other than Lancelot is Sir Kay, (he’s black by the way, a fact Lee doesn’t skirt but doesn’t hammer home, weaving it naturally into the Arthurian mythos). Kay is slightly out of his depth but well meaning in the best Pratchett spirit, and his conversations with Mariam, part of a group of female eco-warriors he meet, is pure Pratchett. Good people, doing their best, sometimes shoddily, ultimately redemptively, in a world of grimness (for all Pratchett’s comedy aspects, his main city was a place where you had to pay thieves insurance so they wouldn’t steal from you: it’s a grimdark world).
But there’s more than the influences of Pratchett at work here. Lee’s Britain is a land steeped in magic and paganism and mysticism, as well as comic he creates a sense of the surreal, often creepily so. There’s gods of nature; there’s creatures of storied myth. He has a strong sense of the patchwork of fables and how to weave them into modern times; in this he is confidently carrying on the Neil Gaiman (Sandman et al) tradition. There’s also a strong Alan Moore vibe, none more so than in some of the most fascinating asides where Kay relates all the past character of history they have bumped into over their centuries of resurrection; pure League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
But if Lee is riding on the coattails of a long list of British fantasy greats, then this is very much his own story. At the centre of it is a question of the past of Britain and its soul. Lee, using all his PhD knowledge to the fore, gives us a fairly grim interpretation of the Arthurian legend. In Kay, we have an idealistic knight who is haunted by some of the decisions he has to made and those he has lost. All this is set against the values of current Britain, a land slowly killing itself and all its natural origins for greed. Somehow, Lee has to square the grimness of Britain’s past and the grimness of its future to make an optimistic story, and the fact that he succeeds is a testament to what he has to say about this flawed but important isle.
Of course it’s hard not to do the above with POLITICS and this is, perhaps, one of the most contentious aspects of Lee’s tome. Given the world we inhabit now, any book about climate change and business interest versus the common people is going to be controversial, and I have no doubt there will be some left spitting out their breakfast over this, and no doubt their lunch and dinner too. After all, the good guys are (mostly) eco warriors; they hang out with a bunch of communists at points, and all the bad guys are the petrochemical/government right wing pro-security lot… and the moral to the story is that nature is great. A quick glance at Goodreads (where rationality goes to die) confirms this; there is more than a scattering of the outraged at the allegedly blatant politics on show here.
Except… Lee is not offering a black and white, Woke v Gammon stage show here. The eco-warriors and other leftists are shown to be frequently self-defeating, ineffective and tiresome. The marvellous scene where the communists, Welsh, eco-warriors and others all meet up in Manchester to hash out a plan for save Britain shows the worst of the left: squabbling, falling out over petty grievances. The republicans have a problem with a Welsh King. The eco-warriors don’t like the others’ use of fossil fuels. Lee is offering nuance here, not bias. He also avoids overt social commentary (some people are queer, some are Muslim, but this is not the point – they just are) as well as policy solutions other than the climate-based variety.
But look, at the end of the day this is still a fairly non-apologetic celebration of those who are opposed to climate change and the path that modern day capitalism and business-friendly interests is taking us. But, I would politely suggest (and by doing so, no doubt annoy those breakfast spillers I mentioned earlier) in a world clearly dying around us where nothing is being done, can such pro-climate points really be considered political? If they are, then maybe we really are all doomed.
But for all the above, this is also a book about people, and their trauma and their coming together to find their voice and absolve their guilt. The small relationships are what matters here just as much as the larger scale chaos. Lancelot, in particular is a triumph. He appears at first a loyal, elitist, stooge to the government, more cynical-take James Bond than Arthurian hero. But as we discover more about him – his gripes, his tortured past, his grief – he becomes this incredible rounded character whose character arc feels gloriously earned. Show me a better character journey this year, I’ll wait.
Kay is a triumph as well; not just with his troubled relationship with Lancelot but with his self-questioning of whether this world really needs a Knight anymore. Mariam, the eco-warrior trying to do good in a world of squabbling men (and a few squabbling women, too) is also that classic Pratchett character: she has the power to change the world precisely because she doesn’t want the power. The spirit of Sam Vimes is strong in this one. Without these real, character arcs the book wouldn’t work, but they are the lodestone upon which the comedy chaos rests.
I haven’t even got to the rest yet: the phenomenal take on Arthur that has to be seen to be believed, Merlin (ditto), Morgan-le-fey etc. But at some point you have to get on with your life and stop reading this, so I’ll let you discover these yourself.
What Lee has done here is astonishing. He’s combined the comedy and literary stylings of British giants like Pratchett, Gaiman, Alan Moore, Douglas Adams and others with his own uniquely powerful take on British values and the power of hope, making this as fundamentally important as it is, importantly, fun. If there really is any Arthurian justice left in these sceptred isles of ours, then we’ll be talking about this book for a very long time.