More than just a princess! Hank Quense’s New Novels
Hank Quense has a track record for writing light-hearted, entertaining and idiosyncratic fantasy fiction in which characters from literary classics or traditional culture are reborn in implausible and generally hilarious settings. Falstaff was one memorable subject of a previous Quense makeover. Now, in the two Princess Moxie books, Moxie’s Problem and Moxie’s Decision, we find ourselves in the Dark Age Britain of a parallel universe, where historical figures such as the Saxon warlords Hengist and Horsa confront the mythical Knights of the Round Table (KRT) – and many others – with riotous and often side-splitting consequences.
It’s never easy to summarise a multi-plot novel and it’s twice as difficult when there are two of them. The Princess Moxie books have the characteristic Quense structure: a succession of short episodes, loosely grouped into chapters, each episode following one story line and ending in at least a mild cliff-hanger. This could be confusing if the touch weren’t so light, the language so engaging and the individual plots so simple, but thanks to the author’s skill the effect is delightfully straightforward and makes you keep reading – and chuckling.
The main characters, each with one or more story-lines that interact with the others, are:
King Artie and Queen Gwen (better known to us as Arthur and Guinevere);
Merlin, famed for blowing smoke and casting spells, and his partner Rowan, disciple of the Lady of the Lake;
Lancelot (an oversized and not very bright muscle man), Gawain (a hopeless womanizer), Galahad (a sanctimonious prig and the only Christian among the KRT), Tristan (a moping lutenist and the worst poet in Britain), and other figures from Arthurian legend;
The Heroes’ Guild, where recruits seeking hero status are subjected to a brutal two-year training regimen under the chief instructor, Harry the Murderer (there are two oily administrators, too);
The Apprentice Knights – Percivale, Bors and Gareth – who have just graduated from the Heroes’ Guild and are assigned by Lancelot to whatever adventures the fully-established knights don’t want;
Hengist, his brother Horsa (who organises the satirical stage production Dogs of War), and assorted Saxons;
and last but by no means least,
Princess Moxie, her miserly and miserable father (a petty king) and her corrupt and ambitious uncle.
What I found particularly pleasing was the way in which Moxie’s character developed through the two books. At the outset she has no redeeming qualities: she’s arrogant, rather stupid, ignorant, snobbish, and seriously unattractive (she resembles an ale barrel). Curiously, the reader empathises with her. The three apprentice knights are sent to escort Moxie to her chosen husband’s castle, her father having decided her only use is to breed an heir for him, and although they’re far from relishing this ‘adventure’ – especially when she refuses to marry the chosen man and makes them take her back home – their ability to look after themselves, each other and her (finding food and shelter, defeating the brigands who beset them, etc.) plants seeds of inspiration in her. As the story proceeds, those seeds grow.
Among the three Apprentice Knights, we’re led to empathise most with Percivale. When they’re sent to Ireland (along with Tristan, of course) to bring Princess Isolde back to marry King Mark of Cornwall, Percivale falls in love with Isolde’s chaperone and subsequently devises a splendid plan to rescue her from Tintagel Castle so he can marry her. This plan involves football.
Football is King Artie’s idea for allowing enemy groups to do battle with each other without anyone getting killed (maiming is another matter) – far less bloody and far less expensive on human life than the shield-wall. Although football matches are described in some detail during the narrative, the nature of the game remains slightly obscure; after all, we’re in the Dark Ages. It appears to be a hybrid between American Football and European Football (which in America is called ‘soccer’). It involves cheerleaders, who are trained by Queen Gwen, cause serious distraction among male players and onlookers, and earn condemnation from the pious Galahad. Percivale takes a team from Camelot to play against Mark’s Cornish footballers, thus creating a diversion that enables him to rescue his bride. (Interestingly, Tristan does not elope with Isolde in this universe.) Artie’s Camelot team regularly play against and defeat Hengist’s Saxons. And football leagues spread across Britain.
The story is delightful, the characters engaging and the ending happy – of course. So do I recommend these two books? In a word, yes. I thoroughly enjoyed them and it would be hard to imagine anyone not enjoying them. Which makes criticisms seem petty; but in the interests of balance…
One drawback of the short-episode style of construction, perfectly though it suits the story, is that tension never builds beyond a mild to moderate level. Some people might find this aspect of the books dissatisfying. It didn’t bother me because the narrative pace and the alternation of plot lines were sufficient to compensate, but it might weigh more with others. And while the second book, Moxies’s Decision, is generally well edited (except for a few minor glitches towards the end), the first one, Moxie’s Problem, isn’t. The errors were almost – though not quite – enough to spoil my enjoyment, juxtaposing gritted teeth with my chuckles. Oh, Hank, I’d have been more than happy to edit the manuscript for you!
But who’d allow one small grey cloud to dominate their appreciation of a perfect summer day? Not I; and, I fancy, no one else either, if we exclude those sad individuals whose entire personalities are dominated by clouds.