King of the Scepter’d Isle by Michael Greatrex Coney

New American Library, 1989, 297 p

 King of the Scepter’d Isle cover

This is set in Coney’s wider universe of the Greataway (as in the previous novels of his Song of Earth series, The Celestial Steam Locomotive, Gods of the Greataway and Fang the Gnome.) At its start the worlds of humans and gnomes, though visible to each other through the umbra, are separated in different happentracks, but Nyneve, a Dedo from the human world – yet who can see into the ifalong, the future of the many happentracks of the Greataway – can slip between them. (Coney’s linguistic inventiveness here is a delight. Happentrack is a lovely word to describe parallel universes and ifalong a beautifully poetic way to express (a) contingent future(s).)

Nyneve is also a storyteller who weaves tales of the legendary King Arthur, and how he will unite the warring lands and become King of England, in such a way as to make her audiences see as well as feel what they are hearing. In this she is helped by a wizened and faded centuries-old Merlin. Not that this is a rehash of the Arthurian legends (despite appearances from Lancelot, Guinevere – as a princess named Gwen – Morgan Le Fay, Mordred, Sir Galahad etc, and familiar concepts like the Sword in the Stone of course also make their appearance. Arthur even builds a Round Table – after many false starts – with a place labelled “Hot Seat” wherein anyone impure who sits at it dies soon after.)

But it is a commentary on such tales. As a minor king says to Nyneve, “‘Nobody’s poor in your stories. Nobody has to tend the animals or work the fields,’” and towards the end she herself says, “‘The stories were an ideal, Arthur. Reality is another thing. Reality is hungry soldiers who haven’t seen a woman for days. Reality is sweat and dirty pants.’” (I suspect that last word has a more earthy resonance in Britain than in the US.)

Nyneve is anxious to bend the stories to her will, arranging for the Sword in the Stone only to be released at the right time by a very mundane piece of trickery. She is also in love with Arthur but he marries Gwen anyway, since that is what the stories say he will. Here, though, Lancelot is never attracted to Arthur’s wife.

Then there are the gnomes, whose lives are circumscribed by the Kikihuahua Examples, handed down when gnomes were brought to their happentrack in the first place by the eponymous kikihuahuas to ensure they would not overexploit their resurces. Thus gnomes are never to work malleable materials and have a distaste for sex as “filth” (an aversion to which Fang and his lover the Princess are somewhat immune.)

What plot there is centres round the merging of human and gnome happentracks (concepts all of the characters seem to know about) and a big rock at a place called Pentor, whose movement by humans sometime in the ifalong will spell disaster.

It’s all enjoyable enough and amusing but suffers from a lack of focus by breaking from the Arthurian part of the tale to turn back to the plight of the gnomes for too many chapters before reversing, and vice versa.

Coney’s early work in the novels Syzygy, Winter’s Children, Hello Summer, Goodbye, The Girl with a Symphony in her Fingers, Charisma and Brontomek! was great stuff as was the much later I Remember Pallahaxi. His Greataway stories not so much.

Pedant’s corner:- Scepter’d (OK, it’s USian, but British English doesn’t even need the apostrophe. Sceptred.) On the back cover blurb; Brontomex (the previous Coney book that refers to was titled Brontomek!. Otherwise; prophesy/prophesies (USian spelling, several times; it was the noun so, prophecy/prophecies please.) Apothegm (I prefer apophthegm.) “‘it doesn’t strike me as being filth anymore, Elmera. It strikes me as …’” (this was Elmera speaking – ‘as being filth, Lady Duck. It strikes’,) “the less men will be killed” (OK it was in someone’s thoughts, but it still ought to be ‘fewer men’.)

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