This is a quite clever, modern take on the knight’s quest of an Arthurian legend, with more than a nod in the direction of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. The setting might be Medieval, but Phillips’ writing style is modern, and so are the ideas of the characters. There are evil knights, good knights, squires, damsels in distress, battles and castles and horses aplenty. But at the end of a fairly diverting few hours, I ended up wondering what the point was, other than entertainment. After having reread the book a second and a third time, I finally realized where Phillips had placed the emphasis: it is a rather sneaky commentary on gender, gender roles and gender-swapping. I had not particularly noticed that at first, which says something about how subtly she worked it in.
- Martha, the queen to be, does not want to be a queen. She’d prefer to be a king because she does not want to be a kow-towing, simpering woman. “She was sure he had taken her words, ‘Really, I’m a girl’, as a metaphor, and now she was afraid to disappoint him when he found out the truth.” (p.273).
- Karim, the man she is in love with, kisses her while she does, in every way, appear to be a boy, thanks to some gender-altering magic from a semi-competent witch/The Beauty in the Barn/The Damsel at the Door.
- Humphrey, one of the Less-Valued Knights, seems to doubt his “gaydar”, until Martha/Marcus confesses: “’It explains a lot…Such as why my body responded to you [Martha] as though you were a woman’, Humphrey thought.” (p. 278).
- Leila, the talking sword, turns out to be a good-looking girl: “‘I told you she was female,’ she [Martha] muttered to Conrad.” (p.277) Leila was terrible in a fight and prone to jealousy.
- Martha’s brother, Jasper, who should be king, ran away to live with his lover, Sir Alistair, in a nondescript town, because he fell out with his father: “’I’m not ashamed of it,’ said Jasper. ‘The fact of the matter is that I am a lover of men.’” (p.279).
- Karim does not press Martha, the new queen, to become male or female again: “‘I told you before,’ said Karim,’ some people don’t mind either way, and you should be you.’ (p.305)
Ah, how completely PC. And they all lived happily ever after.