The Court of the Midnight King: History with a twist

The Court of the Midnight King by Freda WarringtonThe Court of the Midnight King by Freda Warrington

The Court of the Midnight King by Freda WarringtonThe Court of the Midnight King (2003), by Freda Warrington, is an alternate history of England’s King Richard III with some supernatural elements. I’m kind of bummed that I didn’t discover it in 2003, because I’d probably have liked it even more. I was going through a big Plantagenet and Tudor phase, and if you could find a way to work Goddess religion into the plot, so much the better. As it is, I found the novel slow for a long stretch, but it won me over in the end.

Warrington tells the story primarily through three original characters. Raphael is an orphan who is taken into Richard’s service and is deeply devoted to him. Kate is the daughter of a pagan priestess and has a liaison with Richard in her youth, then later becomes a lady-in-waiting to Richard’s wife. August is a college student in modern times who begins having visions of Raphael, Kate, and Richard that distract her from her studies and take over her life.

The book starts off well, but then bogs down somewhat in the middle. It took me a while to put my finger on why, but I finally realized that the point-of-view characters simply didn’t have much to do, other than follow the royal characters around the country and observe the events of known history. Yet I wouldn’t recommend The Court of the Midnight King as an introduction to the Wars of the Roses. It jumps around in time, and I suspect that a reader who didn’t have at least some knowledge of the period would be lost. Meanwhile, the personal relationships seem to be going around in circles during this section.

Freda Warrington

Freda Warrington

The way Richard is described is also a bit off-putting. My first impression was that Warrington’s Richard was too saintly, but he isn’t — he has plenty of flaws. What’s over the top is the way the point-of-view characters react to him, especially Raphael. The tone becomes adoring, as if Richard were a god, and for a while I enjoyed the book much more when Richard wasn’t on-page.

What kept me going through all of this was Warrington’s beautiful writing, infused with a love of the English landscape, and my fond memories of her AETHERIAL TALES novels. I had hope that she would take this story in a direction I didn’t expect, and that’s exactly what she did.

Once the protagonists start trying to change events, rather than just report them, it was as if the novel came out of its chrysalis and flew. Turns out I like Warrington doing Warrington better than I like Warrington doing history. Roughly the final third of the book is a fantastical whirl that prefigures some of the ideas in Elfland. There’s earth magic, folklore, sacred sexuality, and an otherworldly journey. And history might not turn out exactly as you’d expect.

I can’t confidently recommend The Court of the Midnight King to everyone. You have to know at least a little bit about the Wars of the Roses beforehand; you also have to be willing to follow Warrington when she diverges from that history; and you have to get through a long slow section (and a long book, overall). But if you are in the middle of that Venn diagram, or if you loved Elfland and are curious about a sort of proto-version of some of its concepts, The Court of the Midnight King might be up your alley. Having been republished after the discovery of Richard’s remains, it is now readily available as an e-book.

Published in 2003. The Wars of the Roses – a colourful age, full of fury and passion. Richard III – a shadowy, charismatic figure, portrayed by Shakespeare and by history as England’s most malign, ruthless, and infamous king…hacked to death on Bosworth Field in a just ending, unmourned. But history is written by the victors. Other realities reveal a different Richard; one who was loved and remembered in the North as their best ruler; a man who, good or evil, can never be forgotten. To Lady Katherine, he is a dark angel; to his faithful knight Raphael, a creature of light; to others, a complex and seductive mystery. Through their eyes we see Richard grow in a strange world – like ours yet unlike, where a Mother Goddess is still revered alongside a patriarchal God. As the struggle between old and new religions is mirrored in that between York and Lancaster, a chance meeting binds Katherine and Richard reluctantly together, and Raphael becomes haunted by nightmare visions of the future. From their youth, the novel traces their story along with that of England during one of the most fascinating times of our history. In the bestselling tradition of The Mists of Avalon and Lady of HayThe Court of the Midnight King mixes history with the fantastical to create a wonderful, epic tapestry of love, war, and treachery.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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3 comments

  1. I’ve never read anything by her and this makes me want to read Elfland.

  2. Kelly Lasiter /

    Do it! It’s pretty great. It’s long, so allow some time for it, but I find myself going back to it every couple of years.

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