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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.

But that mathematical impossibility was not taught to us for no reason, and the teacher had not without reason attempted to draw it for us. In the indirect manner of all our education, that day I had seen the shape of the world on which I lived.

Christopher Priest is something of an ‘Ideas man’. That’s ideas with a capital ‘I’, as for better or worse his novels tend to revolve around a mysterious central premise, generally kept under wraps until the end. That other mystery monger Christopher Nolan filmed his novel The Prestige some years ago and embargoed media reports on the twist until after its release. He is also fond of the using unreliable narrators, to ensure the mystery continues despite what the reader has been told.

Helward Mann has spent most of his life in a crèche, learning what little he is entitled to about the history of the City according to Guild law. The Guilds rule over the City with a series of strict regulations. No member of any Guild can reveal to an ordinary citizen what they have come to learn during their duties. The ultimate purpose of the City and its business is also a strongly held secret. Helward’s own father, a member of the Future Guild, has told him little of what he expects of his son once he is called to choose membership of one of the several organizations that run the City. In the end, when the callow youth is summoned to the ceremonial rite of passage, he chooses to follow his father’s example and joins the Future Guild. As part of his apprenticeship he is assigned to each of the remaining Guilds to gain essential experience, including the Track Guild, Traction Guild, Bridge-Builders Guild, Barter Guild and Militia Guild.

It is also arranged that he is to be married to the daughter of Bridge-Builder Lerouex. His future bride, Victoria, is a fiercely inquisitive young woman whom he knew during his time in the crèche. The oath he must swear as a Guildsman forbids him from speaking of his work, but she continues to pressure him. She has noticed that they are moving. Helward himself is sent out of the city to work on the tracks that the City travels along. The wooden structure is dragged along the ground by a series of winches and pullies. He sees the sun for the first time, a hyperbola hanging in the sky that resembles a spinning top. The ground itself shifts and time is relative to the distance he travels from the City. People measure their age in miles travelled, as it is the only reliable gauge. No one can explain to him why this is and Victoria grows increasingly frustrated with his reticence, perceiving that he is becoming just like the other tight-lipped Guildsman that run the society, murmuring only occasionally about unseen threats to their survival. The Guilds employ natives from the lands they cross in this alien world. The men are put to work on the tracks. The women are brought into the City for the purposes of breeding. Helward is dismayed by these barbaric practices of enslavement and exploitation, but his superiors only insist that it is necessary. Finally he is asked, shortly before the birth of his child with Victoria, to assist three women who were taken to the City in returning home to their village. What he learns during his travels alters his understanding of the City itself and the alien world they are trapped on, far away from Earth.

This novel reminded me a little of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, a ground-breaking book published in the 1920’s and unfortunately for its unsuccessful author, too ahead of its time. Inverted World also bears many similarities to Philip Reeve’s excellent Mortal Engines series for children. Those novels also described societies living upon moving cities, practicing a form of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, that ensured the survival of strong, predatory municipalities by preying on weaker inhabited structures. An excellent series of books and strongly recommended.

Unfortunately, to my mind, Inverted World’s mysteries proved to be cumbersome and did not hold my interest for the duration of the novel. As an examination of irresolvable conflicts between opposing perceptions of the world, it managed to progress along reasonably well. All the same, I did not find myself compelled to continue reading to its gnomic conclusion.

Sadly this was a tough slog for me.

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