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Spoiler-Free Book Review - The Squire's Tales (Gerald Morris)

Okay, so it's technically an entire series, but that's irrelevant. I am reviewing books and it is therefore a book review. 

The Squire's Tales, by Gerald Morris, is a series of novels that retell in hilarious fashion the lesser known tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Don't worry, you won't have to hear about the sword in the stone again or anything at all about Arthur's childhood. Because this is where the best part comes in: these stories are told from the perspectives of those that other renditions tend to gloss over, mock or forget entirely. These characters are a squire, (as the title would imply) a page, three women and a knight who is objectively terrible at being a knight. He sings and plays music instead. His name's Dinadan. He's wonderful. Over the ten books in the series, you get seven different characters from whose points of view the stories are told (plus a couple extra in the last book, but that's a special case). 

Our story begins in a familiar forest where fourteen-year-old Terence is having a bit of an odd day. Within the first two chapters, he becomes squire to a young would-be knight named Gawain. More than that I won't tell you, but I will make a few points.

8 Things These Books Get Right

*Disclaimer - I have no interest in how faithfully he retold the 'original' stories nor how accurately he portrayed the Middle Ages. That's not the sort of 'right' I'm getting at. I'm looking at the stories he told and how he told them. And I'll do it without spoilers, because I'm not a monster (ahem Hannah cough, cough).

1. Gerald Morris does bromance ridiculously well. (In case you don't know, bromance = a platonic, but very close, relationship between two guys who are not actually brothers.) Terence and Gawain together is just one example of this out of several in the series. Terence gets two books from his perspective to begin with, over the course of which we see his relationship with Gawain flourish. There are way more examples, but let's go with Terence and Gawain for now, since it's the least spoiler-ridden. Seriously, by about five pages in, you know they're going to be friends. But it's not all easy. They both make mistakes for which they have to apologise, and it only strengthens their bond. Each values the other immensely.

2. He also does romance ridiculously well. There are, um, wait... 1, 2, 3, 4... between 11 and 14 romances in the series, depending on how you count. Which may give the impression that the books are really soppy. They're not. Trust me. Two of the books have no romance at all and only about five or six out of those 11 to 14 are developed with significant depth. And there's no glamorisation of this 'love at first sight' rubbish that young adult fiction is so full of. Every healthy romance begins as a friendship and continues as such. But, just as in real life, some of the romances aren't healthy at all and I think the way Morris writes them as realistic, ridiculous and tragic is just brilliant. The relationships he writes - both romantic and platonic, actually - are deeply rooted in the characters and their situations. They don't feel forced and that sort of love is never at the centre of the story - they come naturally. I wish I could write romances half as good.

3. Respect is maintained. Right, let me explain this one. For the entire time that Terence serves Gawain (technically Sir Gawain), he calls him 'milord' and none of the characters ever stop calling King Arthur 'sire', 'my liege' or 'your highness' - except for Sir Kai and Guinevere, but they're exceptions. See, the feudal system relies on a certain amount of self-evident difference between the classes. In an ideal situation - which this isn't, exactly, but it's pretty close - those in power are respected, revered and served by their subjects because they use their power to protect them and make life better for them. This distance and respect is often painted as somehow bad or dishonorable in fiction. We've all seen it before - you know the good characters because they treat everyone equally and allow themselves to be addressed on a first name basis by their inferiors. But that's just the thing: those two things need not be equated. Gawain and Terence are equals. Either would gladly give his life for the other. Yet the fact remains that Terence is Gawain's servant and as such must do the work required. In turn, Gawain helps him when needed, would never ask too much of him, acknowledges his strengths and, as I've said, is a fierce protector. He also wouldn't punish Terence for a lack of respect. Likewise, Terence doesn't just respect him nominally because he's a servant, his regard for Gawain is far deeper than that, and his rank gives him ample room to express it. His service is true and joyful. Their friendship doesn't rely on superficial indicators to be exemplary. 

4. They're hilarious. All anyone in my group of friends (i.e. the Writing Mafia and others) has to do is throw a ball up and down and several people will start laughing hysterically. I won't tell you why because it would ruin the gag, but I promise it's actually funny and we're not just crazy. These books are far wittier than I expected them to be and it's fantastic.

5. They go DEEP. Given their covers, I did not expect to be brought to tears by these books, but boy have I cried! Not all of them are emotional, but when they are, it's brutal. But that's not all. Gerald Morris is a pastor of a Baptist church in the States and it turns out he has a lot of wisdom to pass on through this series. There is some clever commentary on the medieval church that's still oddly applicable to today's world, but it never gets preachy. He tackles themes like honour, service, forgiveness, leadership, identity, 'acceptable' lies and love of all kinds in ways that are often subtle and always quite ingenious. I can't really describe it and do it justice. Read them and you'll know what I mean.

6. There's a host of great female characters. Three of the characters who get their own books are women and they're awesome. Lynet, a young noblewoman, is the first. She doesn't have to know how to fight to be amazing - despite the fact that she fights better than Roger. Which, in fairness, is no accomplishment. She and all the others are smart and strong in their own ways. They learn lessons of their own, have aspirations, talents and aims of their own that are unrelated to finding a man. Well, actually, that kind of is Sarah's goal, but it's not romantic. At all. I promise.

7. They're all linked. Almost every single significant character comes back again at some point. In fact, most of them play a part in the last book, which has chapters from perspectives a huge variety of people, including King Arthur. It manages to introduce new characters, do justice to all the old characters, finish the story and make you cry your eyes out. It's pretty great. Plus, the series spans about 20 years, so remember little fourteen-year-old Terence from the very beginning? You get to watch him grow up!

8. The characters. They're amazing. Truly breathtaking. Some are more likable than others, of course, and I have definitely had a crush on at least one of them, but all are recognisably human (unless, of course, they're not human at all, in which case the line gets blurred and I get very off-topic). Additionally, Morris and C.S. Lewis remain the only two authors ever to have taken a character who I completely abhorred and made me love them by the end of their arc. The characters are the real reason I love these books.

2 Things I Don't Love

1. The covers. They're horrible. All of them. I believe there are three editions and none of them are in any way representative of the content of the stories. Despite the proverb, book covers are meant to be judged. It's their job. And it's the publisher's job to get the covers right, so it's not Morris' fault, but I still don't like it.

2. They're not very sophisticated in writing style. And yes, admittedly, they're aimed at young adults, but I've already passed the age they're 'supposed' to be for and I know I haven't learned all I can from them yet, so I kind of wish he'd written them for a slightly older age range.

I had to cut out a lot of things I think Gerald Morris did fabulously with The Squire's Tales, so, no matter how old you are, see if you can get your hands on them. I'll wager you'll be impressed, have a laugh and end up a little bit different to how you were before you began. And your heart will break. I've warned you.

Soli Deo Gloria