Nathan’s Review of Perilous Times by Thomas D. Lee
Expected Publication: 25 May 2023
Genre: Arthurian Retelling; Climate Fiction; Satire
Pages: 496 pages
An immortal Knight of the Round Table faces his greatest challenge yet—saving the politically polarized, rapidly warming world from itself—in this slyly funny contemporary take on Arthurian legend.
Legends don’t always live up to reality.
Being reborn as an immortal defender of the realm gets awfully tiring over the years—or at least that’s what Sir Kay’s thinking as he claws his way up from beneath the earth yet again.
Kay once rode alongside his brother, King Arthur, as a Knight of the Round Table. Since then, he has fought at Hastings and at Waterloo and in both World Wars. But now he finds himself in a strange new world where oceans have risen, the army’s been privatized, and half of Britain’s been sold to foreign powers. The dragon that’s running amok—that he can handle. The rest? He’s not so sure.
Mariam’s spent her life fighting what’s wrong with her country. But she’s just one ordinary person, up against a hopelessly broken system. So when she meets Kay, she dares to hope that the world has finally found the savior it needs.
Yet as the two travel through this bizarre and dangerous land, they discover that a magical plot of apocalyptic proportions is underway. And Kay’s too busy hunting dragons—and exchanging blows with his old enemy Lancelot—to figure out what to do about it.
In perilous times like these, the realm doesn’t just need a knight. It needs a true leader.
Luckily, Excalibur lies within reach.
But who will be fit to wield it?
With a cast that includes Merlin, Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and King Arthur himself—all reimagined in joyous, wickedly subversive fashion—Perilous Times is an Arthurian retelling that looks forward as much as it looks back . . . and a rollicking, deadpan-funny, surprisingly touching fantasy adventure.
Review of Perilous Times
What if Merlin gave the Knights of the Round Table a spell that allowed them to resurrect whenever Britain was in danger? What if that danger was climate change and evil corporations? That is the world that Thomas D. Lee imagines for Perilous Times, a clever albeit uneven mashup of an Arthurian retelling, climate fiction, and dry British satire.
Before diving into my full review, I should give a bit of a positionality statement because I think it influenced how I experienced this book and will color my review. Most importantly, I am an American who only knows the broadest strokes of British history, customs, and culture. I also know some things about the King Arthur story, but I am by no means an expert.
I bring this up because I am sure that I “missed” a lot of the jokes and satire that Lee included in Perilous Times. When I picked up this book, I was expecting a true comedy – something along the lines of Terry Pratchett. I thought I was going to get full on wacky and hilarious satire. This is not what Perilous Times is, nor how I experienced it. While there are definitely some hilarious and laugh out loud moments scattered throughout the novel, the humor is actually much more in the background. Rather than a true screwball comedy, it is more of a quiet and subdued version of Kings of the Wyld. But maybe it is much funnier to someone who is British or has spent a lot of time on the British Isles. I am sure that there are so many jokes that I just didn’t get that might have deflated the reading experience for me a bit.
However, having said that, this was still quite an entertaining read, especially if you have any experience with the King Arthur story. Lee does a fantastic job of subverting so many of the tropes and expectations of these characters and their story. Arthur is much less impressive and much less heroic than he is traditionally portrayed. Lancelot is a gay man who never slept with Guinevere. Merlin is not as kind or altruistic as what one might expect. In all of these cases I burned through the pages with anticipation, waiting for another literary figure to appear (others, like Morgan and The Lady of the Lake also show up).
The major “new” (non-Arthurian) character who we follow is a woman named Mariam. Mariam is the perfect characterization of someone who wants to change the world but is up against such large structural forces that change seems impossible. Mariam is part of a feminist ecological activist group that is trying to save the last vestiges of the world from climate change. However, as much as she tries, she only seems to make things worse, and nothing is being accomplished and looming corporate forces just take on more power and control. The group she is in can’t stop bickering and in-fighting, and she is feeling a bit powerless and lost. This all changes when she starts to see magic – resurrected Arthurian figures, dragons unleased from beyond the magical Veil, witches, magical staffs and swords, and so much more. I really enjoyed following Mariam’s journey because she was a relatable figure in this larger than life story. She was someone who has always wanted to make change but struggled, now on a journey of becoming a heroic figure all on her own.
Despite all of the great character work Lee did with Mariam, the characters that really shined for me were Kay and Lancelot (I know, I know, its the men, but Lee does really interesting things with them!). Other than Mariam, the other major POV character in the novel is Kay, Arthur’s foster brother. I’m not sure if this is a traditional interpretation, but in Perilous Times Kay is a Black man. Lee uses Kay as a way to explore and comment upon so many interesting themes and discourses. The most obvious is race. Kay often laments the racism he experiences from “the Saxons” in this modern world because in the olden days race wasn’t seen as a big deal. In the time of the Roman Empire everyone moved around everywhere, and so it was normal to see people of different skin colors, hair textures, and other physical features. In the near-future Britain in which Perilous Times is set, Kay is then a fish out of water in many different ways, from both a temporal and racial perspective. The other reason I really liked Kay as a character is because Lee also explores Kay’s trauma in a really natural and organic way. This is not the first time that Kay has been resurrected because Britain was in peril; he fought in the English Civil War, he fought in WWI, WWII, and even the Cold War. As we get to know Kay on a deeper level as the novel progresses, we see the toll that having to partake in all of these fights has had on him.
Similarly, we see the same kind of psychological scarring on Lancelot. Lancelot has also been subjected to many of these same “perils”, even if he has often fought on the opposite side of the conflicts as Kay. While Kay reacts to his trauma by striving to be a better hero, Lancelot takes the opposite approach. If this is his life now (and if society has deemed him the villain of Arthurian legend), than he is going to look out for himself and the ones closest to him. I don’t want to say too much more because of spoilers, but one of Lancelot’s scenes had me in tears (and I’m not really one to cry at books!).
Lee thrusts his characters, both legendary and new, into a near future Britain that in many ways is like the one we know, but also very different. I really liked all of the different societal changes Lee made as he envisioned a world battling the severe reprucussions of climate change. This is a future in which much of the British Isles are underwater, forcing people to move, while other major rivers and bodies of water have completely dried up. One of my favorite little details is that a new sect of Judeo-Christianity has appeared, The Church of Noah, who believe that the rising sea levels are a sign that the Biblical flood is returning and they must build an ark. Private corporations have taken over governments, Britain is pretty much just a corporate vassal of the US and China, Scotland and Wales have declared independence, a pint of English beer costs 25 pounds and brewed in America, and so many small worldbuilding details are built into Lee’s near future Britain.
As much as I enjoyed my time with Perilous Times, there were a couple of things that kept it from being an absolute favorite. I have already talked about how much of the humor didn’t really land for me, and/or that it completely flew over my head. Again, I think this is a me issue, but it could mean that your mileage (or kilometerage?) will vary based on your understanding of British politics and society.
The other thing that didn’t work for me was that the pacing of the novel was a bit slow for my personal tastes. The book could have been 50 pages shorter and been all the stronger for it. There was a bit of a lag about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through the story where I didn’t feel like we were learning anything new about this world or these characters, but that people were just doing things for the sake of moving characters around the board. I personally have nothing against slow paced books (the Realm of the Elderings is my favorite series!) but I found my mind wandering during certain sections.
The only other downside that I want to point out is that some of the larger plot machinations were not as well developed as they could have been. I don’t want to give spoilers away, but the main corporate antagonists, their goals, and how it intersected with the magical elements of the story were slightly underbaked. Stuff was happening in the end that didn’t totally make sense because the actual magic side of the worldbuilding was left a bit too vague. This could have just been me, and I think that what ultimately happens will really appeal to fans of the more “literary” side of fantasy and magical realism.
Overall, I can see how this book would really work for certain readers, while I think other readers will have the “it was good but not fantastic” experience that I had. If Arthurian retellings involving climate change and a gay Lancelot sounds right up your alley, then I highly recommend that you check it out. But if some of the things I that I highlighted here are bookish red flags for you, then you might want to look elsewhere.
Concluding Thoughts: A clever and satirical look at the politics of climate change, Thomas D. Lee crafts an original Arthurian retelling that challenges many of our assumptions about these mythical characters. Some of the clever worldbuliding and character development was overshadowed a bit by some extraneous pages and my American ignorance of British society, politics, and humor. I can see how this would be a new favorite for some readers and a complete “meh” for others. This book knows what it is, and completely commits to it.