Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone

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Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Three suave, sophisticted oriental travellers in search of a missing kinsman find themselves slap-bang in the middle of earthy (well, muddy), basic England. Kings of Albion has its tongue firmly in its cheek from page 1. Bookbag laughed until its sides hurt. If you like laughing at conspiracy theories, you will love this book. It's not without fault and would benefit from some strict editing, but y'know? Who cares? It's funny. Very funny.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2001
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 0349113858

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Kings of Albion is a work of fiction that purports to be set in the fifteenth century. Readers bothered by anachronisms and inaccuracies are asked first of all to consider whether or not these may have been intentional. If they are still bothered then I must ask them to accept that the whole thing could have happened in an alternative solar system on the other side of the universe. Nevertheless, I did read around a bit.

Ha. Well, I think that is funny, anyway. So says Julian Rathbone in the introduction to his novel, Kings of Albion. In it, a party of sophisticated, cultured fifteenth century Easterners in search of a prince's long-lost brother stumble slap-bang into the middle of the Wars of the Roses. Ali, traveller and fifteenth century Del Boy, Uma, hedonist and searcher of pure experience and Prince Harihara, royal scion of Vijayanagara are looking for Jehani, Prince Harihara's brother. Jehani left Vijayanagara on a mission to learn about western military tactics and equipment that would, hopefully, aid Vijayanagara to protect its fragile borders from its expansionist neighbours. It is feared, though, that Jehani has become part of a secret sect - The Brothers of the Free Spirit - and he has not been heard of in some time. Our three protagonists are in search not only of Jehani, but also of that military knowledge. Together with a rag-tag gaggle of hangers-on, they travel westwards, away from culture and sophistication and warmth into the cold, dank, rough, uncivilised land that is England during the Wars of the Roses.

Ali is the calming influence. Uma the seeker of delight. Prince Harihara is the stuffy, pompous, spoiled eastern nobleman on a voyage of salutary experience. England, through the eyes of these cultured, intelligent people is a strange, barbarous place. Yet, in this unfamiliar, threatening environment, all three find - in some way, at least - what it is they seek. What is the true identity of young Eddie March? What has happened to Jehani? Does England contain the knowledge they need to protect Vijayanagara? And will they even survive to tell the tale?

Oh, goodness me. Where to begin with The Kings of Albion? Struggling to find some contemporary references to place it for you, it has the same joyful rush of references and jokes as does the work of Douglas Adams or TV's The Simpsons. It adds to a long line of medieval stories told through anachronism such as The Once and Future King trilogy by T H White or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain. It is the kind of book that, when reviewing, just begs to be quoted and illustrated, rather in the way we repeat the best lines from the best comedy series over coffee at work. I am fighting the temptation as I type; it is far better for you to discover the jokes yourself. I cannot resist just one, though. As Eddie March and Uma barricade themselves inside an attic room, trying to escape Sir John Clifford, Sir John, as his axe breaks through the door, steals Jack Nicholson's line from The Shining and shouts, "He-e-e-e-re's Johnny!" It might lose a little in translation, but it is hilarious. Rathbone has just built tension for several pages, you are right in the middle of the action, and then... bang! Suddenly, all you see in your mind's eye is a big ol' grinning Jack Nicholson. I laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. Moments of tension dissipate into helpless laughter in page after page after page.

I am not sure how many of the references I got. There are so many. Where else would you find a steal from Nietsche and mention of Boddington's brewery in the very same paragraph? I know a reasonable amount about the Wars of the Roses and so Eddie March's true identity was no surprise to me. I know a little bit about the Assassins and the Thuggee and other ancient secret societies, my knowledge gleaned, like Rathbone's, from eager childhood reading of adventure stories written by people like John Masters and Rider Haggard. I know a little bit about the history of leftist politics through the middle ages - Lollardism, Wycliffe, and other such - but I knew nothing of the Vijayanagara Empire, or the scientific and ontological sophistications of the Oriental societies at this time. But it doesn't really matter what knowledge you bring to reading this book - most of what you get is anachronism in any case. The Kings of Albion is, more than it is anything, an hilarious romp through the middle ages and a cracking adventure story. It is vigorous, it is energetic and it is full of skit after skit after skit. I loved the way Rathbone describes the English, Norman nobility as if they were nineteenth century public schoolboys and the English, Saxon and Celt yeomanry as East End barrowboys - a nice but accurate satire of the apartheid practised here at that time, don't you think? And funny, too.

Perhaps a more ruthless editor would have got the party of tourists underway before page 80. Perhaps that same ruthless editor would have demanded a more satisfactory, less trite resolution to the sub-plot involving Uma and Eddie March. And again, perhaps that same ruthless editor would have cut a few of the over-long descriptions. These, though, are petty picks at a vivid, energetic, funny book. I loved Kings of Albion. It is a literary novel - not a light read, but it is so energetic, so vital, and so good-humoured, that despite its dense style, despite its uncompromising vocabulary, despite its exposition of some quite difficult scientific, philosophical and religious ideas, it is an accessible one. It is also very funny.

Have I said funny often enough yet?! Go read it.

Booklists.jpg Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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