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Adam Roberts is the author of a growing number of science fiction novels, short stories, essays and other writings. This site contains not just his blog, but everything you could ever want to know about everything Adam has ever published. And more...

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Blackest Prince

By Adam Roberts | February 21, 2019
Categories: Reviews

The mass-market paperback cover for The Black Prince had been more-or-less finalised [click to embiggen], when Margaret Drabble (!!!) up and reviewed the novel, in amongst a number of other Burgess titles, for the 21st Feb 2019 edition of the TLS. So now it looks like the mmp cover will be redesigned to incorporate a quotation from her. And, well: wow. This was her take on the book:

The overall mood of [Puma] is vigorous and life-enhancing, a celebration of literature, art, music, good food and good wine. These things will perish, and the food on America 1 will be unpalatably dull, but it is good that they have been. Not so the mood of Adam Roberts’s novel The Black Prince, which is as dark and bloody as its protagonist, and some of it unreadably though not, alas, implausibly violent. It is a chronicle of a period in the Hundred Years War, suggested by an original script by Burgess, and it spares us nothing of the horrors of warfare. Roberts employs techniques from film, newsreel and press headlines (“God on our side, claims Fighting Cleric: WALDEMAR IV, KING OF DENMARK, DIES IN HIS 55th YEAR”), and uses typographical experimentation to make his points, somewhat in the manner of Dos Passos. The rich narrative exhibits impressive historical research into medieval battles and sieges (credited to Dr Catherine Nall), and gives us horrifying accounts of Cressy and Poitiers, and of the extreme pointlessness and unheroic brutality of the entire campaign. I had to skip the sack of Limoges. I often have to shut my eyes in the cinema; this was all too cinematic for me. Like Burgess, Roberts does not shy away from the scatological. The bodily sufferings and double incontinence of Ned the Black Prince and others are described in horrific and pitiable detail. Like Burgess, he also enjoys verbal and visual puns. The darkness has flashes of light, such as the bowmen’s response to news of the fighting Genoese: “They had heard of Italy. The land of Pompey. And of Julius, the king aptly named Seizer for his skill at conquest”.

It is a large and at times confusing canvas, a colourful medieval tapestry combined with the grimness of twentieth-century newsreel. We meet figures of nobility and chivalry, with much questioning of the notions of chivalry; we meet foot soldiers and priests and John of Gaunt and John Wyclif. We meet the Black Prince’s bride, the beautiful Joan of Kent, and Alice of Henley with her psychic camera eye. It is a relief when, all too rarely, the camera pulls away from the close-up shots and pans out to the landscape of France and the wheatfields and the trees. But overall, we are left, probably intentionally, with a sense of the utter wastefulness of these hundred-plus years, when England was attempting to cling onto and extend its claim to French territories. We do not emerge with credit, although we list these battles as victories.

As you can see, she goes on to connect the book to the present Brexit national and cultural travails. Margaret Drabble, no less!

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