The Court of the Midnight King by Freda Warrington
The 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.
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.
I’ve never read anything by her and this makes me want to read Elfland.
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.
Okay, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll put it on the list.