Sir Humphrey is a knight of Camelot. Just not a knight of the famous Round Table, but of the worm-eaten wobbly table in the darkest corner of Camelot’s throne room: the Table of Less Valued Knights. Humphrey is dissatisfied with being permanently off duty, so he takes on the quest of Elaine, a damsel in distress whose husband was abducted by a mysterious Black Knight. While searching for the Black Knight, Humphrey and Elaine come across Martha, a young queen who’s been transformed into a lad through magic after she ran away from her disgusting chauvinistic husband. Said husband, the Prince Consort Edwin, who calls himself king though he’s clearly not, intends to find Martha so he can father a child and then murder her. Sounds pretty messy? Well, it’ll get even messier.
Marie Phillip’s style of writing is full of (black) humour and irony, sharp observations of people’s ridiculous habits, neuroses and self-doubts while the protagonists make things up as they go along. On the surface, „The Table of Less Valued Knights“ is a parody on damsel-in-distress stories – as if women needed rescuing all the time or weren’t capable of dealing with things just as well as men – but on a closer look, her approach of combining social criticism with entertainment becomes clear.
Martha’s cover as a transgender boy not only criticizes the class system but illustrates how ridiculous and narrow-minded medieval – and some members of the male half of this planet’s population are still quite medieval in their views on women and gender equality – stereotypes and clichées about the sexes and genders were, and how fixated on putting people into binary categories we still are today instead of letting people identify as whatever they want and letting everybody live happily ever after as they see fit.
Humphrey as a middle-aged man with a few health issues is doomed to be unemployed till the day he dies – until he decides to change his fate and finds a job for himself by taking on the quest. His squire, the half-giant Conrad, with his unusual mount – an elephant instead of horse – serves to show how people are discriminated against for really random things like being taller than others or having an unusual pet or ride.
All of these things might sound as if the book’s very high-brow and intellectual (as if those were bad things) but I can assure you that it’s a funny and entertaining read with lots of plot twists and snappy conversations. The characters are lovable; even the baddies with all their faults and evil plans somehow come across as charming in a way, probably because you feel so sorry for them that you – paradoxically – have to like them.
Those of you who love Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett – we’ve finally found the female voice who holds a candle to them if not outshines them. Her Majesty’s been royally entertained and awards: