‘Revolt’ is the perfect nugget of historical fiction. Gregory Maudseley is a knight on his uppers, trying to negotiate the windings of 14th Century bureaucracy to obtain his inheritance, and in so doing stumbles into the midst of a national emergency. What follows takes in brawls and riots, thieves and nobles, knock-kneed nags and Geoffrey Chaucer, a most inconvenient marriage of convenience, and equal measures of action and humour.
I don’t want to start with the rich, authentic realisation of 14th Century England that leaps off its pages but I feel I must, only because the narrative and characters are so engaging that you almost don’t notice how well executed the history is. I was immersed in a world that was somehow unfamiliar but didn’t feel so, from the very beginning. The nitty-gritty of medieval life for a petty knight and common folk is laid out in all its grubby glory, with each almost incidental detail building the picture while driving the plot on. This is no small matter. And it has a lot to do with Chaucer.
Every so often, someone will try to take stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and place them in a modern setting. After all, they do it with Shakespeare all the time, and Chaucer is the second national poet. But this works with some of them. Sure, the universality of human experience cuts through in some cases. The Knight’s Tale generally sticks out like a sore thumb. The reason for this is that it is based around a conflict between two huge pillars of medieval life, at least in its upper echelons – courtly love on the one hand and knightly chivalry on the other – which have no modern analogue. The concepts are far more alien to our experience than Middle English is to our ears. This is all a roundabout way of saying that Ironside manages to negotiate the realities of 14th Century social codes in a way that’s actually meaningful to a modern audience while feeling totally authentic. On top of that, she gently satirises Chaucer’s portrayal of knightly conduct, while the appearance of Chaucer himself – in his lifetime far more of a polymath than his modern reputation admits – could have gone a bit ‘Quantum Leap’ but actually fits the tone and narrative perfectly.
Sir Gregory is one of those heroes you can’t help liking, despite his somewhat patchy background and willingness to break bones. Indeed, if hero is really the word, as the protagonist starts out simply trying to hold his life together and pick up the pieces of his sorry estate, unexpectedly passed to him after the death of various antecedents. The cynical ex-mercenary soon shows himself to be rather more complicated, however, and not so jaded that the idea of the ‘verray pafit gentil knighte’ is entirely unlikely. The adventures of Gregory, and the motley band he gathers along the way – wife Alienor, groom Cuthbert, the aforementioned poet (who turns out to be rather more than that) and others – will sweep you along to a date with destiny that pits a boy king against his rebellious subjects. There’s excitement and tension aplenty, but Revolt is fun and genuinely funny. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and anyone who likes a good adventure with well-realised characters.