I first discovered Marie Phillips when I picked up a copy of Gods Behaving Badly in a charity shop. While I enjoyed it, it wasn’t quite everything I hoped. However, I was browsing a used bookstore in Calgary called Fair’s Fair, which has a huge selection, and I came across her second book: The Table of Less Valued Knights.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed that I’m on a bit of an Arthurian fiction kick at the moment (blame my writing brain — I’m working on Bard, so anything that mentions Arthurian catches my eye and i feel the need to read it to suss out the competition or get ideas or how other people adapt this material), but when the blurbs for this book compared it to Terry Pratchett and Monty Python, I knew it was an Arthurian story I could pass up.
So, I bought it, because filling up my suitcase with extra books sounds like a great idea. And by the end of the day I’d read it. Like I’ve said, I make poor life choices, and many of them involve staying up until 2am reading books.
The Pratchett and Monty Python references were apt: The Table of Less Valued Knights has the kind of humour that is sometimes obvious and bordering on slapstick, but at other times is sharply satirical. It critiques the position of women not only throughout history (in terms of illegitimate children and the shame they represent for their mothers rather than their fathers), but also within stories and narratives. It’s also just really entertaining.
The characters are awesome. Humphrey, a Less Valued Knight, may not be particularly honourable in terms of chivalric ideals, but he is a genuinely good guy, epitomised by one thing he says: “There’s no such thing as an enemy baby.” He helps people not necessarily out of a sense of duty or because he thinks he’ll be rewarded, though that comes into it, but because he thinks it’s what he should do. Martha, a queen on the run disguised as a boy, is officially my child, and her absolute disgust upon learning about sex was hilarious. Seriously, it made my day.
Martha upon seeing an illustration of sex for the first time, the night before she’s meant to get married:
“Jesus lord of all, he puts that there as well? Is there no end to this?”
A woman after my own heart. Let’s be real.
It would take too long to explain what I like about all the characters: Conrad the small giant and Jemima, his elephant; Elaine, the damsel in distress searching for her missing fiancee, Leila the magic sword but also a person, the very grumpy temporary Lady of the Lake who is only filling in because Nimue ran off with Merlin, Karim who doesn’t mind if Martha has an enchanted beard or not, Alistair and Jasper who are GAY KNIGHTS.
Oh, did I not mention the GAY KNIGHTS? Did it somehow slip my mind to mention that this contains one of my favourite things ever? (After writing The Knight Shift where nobody is straight, I’m always disappointed if all the knights are only interested in rescuing maidens and nobody feels like rescuing another knight.)
I liked that although the gay knights have had bad things happen — I’m trying to avoid giving too many spoilers — they’re now adorable and domestic and just chilling in a cottage somewhere. I LOVE IT. THEY’RE ADORABLE.
This takes all your common Arthurian tropes and turns them into something thoroughly entertaining: men in iron masks, women in
ponds lakes giving out swords, jousting, mysterious knights in black armour, a desire for glory, and the general impression of Lancelot being that he’s not quite as good as he seems at first.
(I’m biased, because I happen to believe that Lancelot — at least in the French literature that I’ve read — is a complete moron. He’s just… ahhh, he’s so pathetic. It entertains me when other people pick up on this too.)
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the way this poked fun at medieval tales while also spinning its own adventure story that was engaging in and of itself. If you loved the film A Knight’s Tale, I think you’ll enjoy this. If you liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ll probably enjoy this too.
A few content notes: there’s a lot of bad language in this book, which I don’t usually warn for but people might not be expecting it in an Arthurian story, and a lot of the bad guys are very misogynistic. While their behaviour (including rape, not on-page but mentioned) is portrayed as bad, it may be something some readers would like to be aware of before they start.
I gave this book four stars on Goodreads and I’m torn now between giving it four or giving it five. With some books, the longer it is since I’ve read them the less I like them, because I liked them while reading them but they don’t have a lasting impact. I think this is probably the reverse, that I’ll remember it fondly, and although I read it so quickly I’m glad I bought it because now I can reread it at will. Plus, I haven’t written a five star review on this site since October.
Buuuuut, it’s getting four. Because it didn’t quite have that extra oomph that is needed to get me to give a five-star rating.
Still, it’s strongly recommended to anyone who likes Pratchett, Monty Python, satire, social commentary, knights, Athuriana, magic, gender confusion, gay knights, and poking fun at the medieval (which, to be honest, could be the title of my degree).