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“There’s nothing a man can do that can’t be turned into a tale,” he used to tell me, as we rode from one hall to the next through the hills of summer. “Arthur can do nothing so bad that I can’t spin it into gold, and use it to make him more famous and more feared. If the tales are good enough even the poor man who goes hungry from paying Arthur taxes will love him. I am the story-spinning physician who keeps his reputation in good health.”

Philip Reeve rather kindly includes a series of notes at the back of this novel, with an explanation of what inspired this further addition to the Arthurian cycle, already chock-full of revisionist takes on this most famous of British myths. Reeve states that he has been fascinated with King Arthur since he saw John Boorman’s Excalibur in 1981.You cannot guess my relief that he did not say that insipid 2004 King Arthur flick.

Philip Reeve was already one of my favourite literary people (the other is Philip Pullman – I call them the two Philips) thanks to his excellent Mortal Engines series, but this revelation has clinched it for me.

Philip Reeve is a wonderful human being. There I’ve said it.

Gwyna is a young girl, one night forced to run for her life after a raiding party attacks her home. The men belong to a marauding brigand known as Arthur, who crushes farmers and landowners who refuse to pay him protection racket. Pretending to Christian devotion, with the symbol of the cross adorning their armour, while the men still worship their British gods. They are little more than savages, pretending to long-departed Roman civilization.

Gwyna is rescued by bard and storyteller Myrddin. He’s not much of a musician, but he has a canny way of knowing just what lies to invent for an audience eager to hear tales of the mighty Arthur, the man who is destined to unite Britain and cast out the Saxons. Myrddin is inspired to invent a new tale to confirm Arthur’s mythical standing and arranges for the warrior to travel to a traditional religious site, where he is met by the ancient goddess the Lady of the Lake.

What neither Arthur, nor the men watching open-mouthed on the shore realize, is the mystical figure who presents their leader with the sword Caliburn is actually Gwyna. The event binds the men to Arthur and Myrddin is pleased with his efforts as kingmaker. In gratitude to the terrified girl, he disguises her as a boy, gives her the name Gwyn and teaches her in the ways of creating living myths and heroes.

Gwyna’s crossdressing adventures allow her to be present at the many demystified events that Reeve has extrapolated from Arthurian myth. Myrddin is of course a far less magical Merlin, a trickster spin-doctor, an ur-Alastair Campbell (or Malcolm Tucker!). There’s also Medrawt (here Mordred), Bedwyr (Bedivere) and of course Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). There are even hints that Gwyna herself is a version of Morgan le Fay and at one point having spent too much time around Myrddin conjured up the grail myth.

While I would much prefer to read another Mortal Engines book – Reeve’s own fictional universes have a vivacity and creative genius all of their own – this is still a witty retelling of the Arthur story. The mythical king of Britain is here revealed to be a gangster, obsessed with acquiring more territory, with his ‘Merlin’, waging an aggressive P.R. campaign to unite the British tribes beneath the man he is convinced will defeat the Saxons.

Myths and lies become indistinguishable, as Gwynna becomes more expert in their gullibility of most humans. Another fantastic yarn from the imagination of Philip Reeve.

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