I'm always down for some historical/mythological fiction in a comedic style, so The Table of Less Valued Knights seemed like a good proposition. Marie Phillips delivers an Arthurian quest beset with archetypes, allusions, and anachronisms. Her characters quip like they're in a Christopher Moore novel (albeit slightly less self-aware) and her vision of Knights of Camelot is every bit as decadently absurd as Monty Python's.
There. Have I name-dropped enough comparisons yet? Good. Let's get on with it.
The story starts a little slow, actually, and for the first part I was somewhat skeptical as to how much I would end up enjoying it. This type of humour is easy to get wrong (as evidenced by how inconsistently I've enjoyed Moore's work). While there's nothing wrong with Sir Humphrey and the idea of a "Less Valued Table of Knights" who have been demoted from the Round Table over the years, none of it particularly grabbed my attention. Indeed, it isn't until Martha shows up and steals the show that this story gets going.
Queen Martha of Tuft has a tough time of it, especially after she kinda-sorta becomes a man, in that classic "gender swap/mistaken identity" trope. Phillips creates an interesting character here: in many ways, Martha is naïve. She knows little of life outside a castle (has no idea of the value of money, for instance). Yet she also has many skills she once perceived as pointless, such as the ability to speak many foreign languages. Her observations of Humphrey and Conrad and attempts to fit in and emulate maleness are funny, sure, but they're also part of a larger commentary on gender that Phillips weaves throughout the book.
Stories like this, stories that poke fun at the tropes and shorthand we've constructed of medieval worlds and legends like Arthuriana, are valuable. It's one thing to strive for "historically accurate" fiction and another to just take a can-opener to history and tear the top off to find out what lies beneath. The Table of Less Valued Knights starts as a light-hearted, humorous story. Yet the deeper I went, the more plot I found.
Martha's a wonderful protagonist, and her reviled husband, Edwin, is an equally wonderful antagonist. He starts off as a stock, stereotypical villain type: a lascivious lout with no respect, for women or for men, and far too big an opinion of his own cunning. But Phillips soon lends substance to his pomp, showing that Edwin has some teeth. The moment he goes from comical thorn in the side to actual villain is pretty shocking, in the sense that I'm surprised the author lets him get away with it.
This sense—that the characters are more two-dimensional actors in the author's drama—does run throughout the story, and it's possible this could be a bigger problem for you than it was for me. Phillips never quite breaks the fourth wall like other authors do (and I love me some fourth-wall breaking), but the narrative structure is both absurd and serendipitous at points. You kind of just have to go with it, and want to enjoy this type of book. Wishing it's something more complex is only going to get you disappointment.
I was ambivalent about The Table of Less Valued Knights when I began, but by the end I had a smile on my face. Surprises like that are always welcome; here I was starting a book I thought I'd like at best, and I ended up having a much better time. It's not even the over-arching plot or the characters so much as all the little bits Phillips throws in—like the dwarf manning the customs post at the border of Tuft showing up again at the border of Grint, much to Edwin's irritation and surprise. It's these little things that show how much fun Phillips must have had inhabiting this universe, and when the fun an author has shines through, the experience is that much better for a reader.