Gwen, Princess of the Realm, and Lord Arthur (named for his ancestor King Arthur but always known as Art) have been betrothed since birth and now that they are both of a suitable age, the marriage is to take place. This seems very simple and proper, but there is one snag – both of them are secretly gay. Gwen is smitten by Lady Bridget LeClair, the only female knight at the annual tournament and Art is becomingly increasingly obsessed with Gwen’s serious, bookish brother Gabe, heir to the throne. When each discovers the other’s secrets they agree to cover for each other and so an action-packed and hilariously convoluted story begins. The protagonists are more than ably supported in this by Art’s wingman Sidney and Gwen’s maid Agnes, who add to the general mayhem, not least by falling in love with each other.
Croucher’s gift for witty banter and slapstick comedy sail the reader through events delightfully. There is much alcohol and brawling – Art and Sidney – and a fine sense of slapstick comedy from them, too. The history of the two kingdoms is woven in almost incidentally and is kept very low key until the great battle scene at the end of the book. It is a measure of Croucher’s skill in creating and developing characters that this is particularly moving. The reader cares about the outcome of the conflict, but only because they have invested heavily in the key characters involved. When there is resolution of personal conflict-particularly between Art and Gwen – Croucher swerves the easy routes, thus avoiding sentimentality and keeping a quiet faith in veracity.
There is, however, far more to the book than a rattling good mediaeval tale, albeit an entertainingly unconventional one. Croucher explores the idea of self and how far it should be acknowledged. Gabe will inherit the throne and Gwen will take her place beside him – they have both known this since they were old enough to understand it. Neither of them wants to assume the mantle of power, preferring instead to be themselves, following their dreams and ambitions as commoners do. What Croucher does is enable them to weave their pre-destined roles and their dreams together into one entity: Gabe becomes king but will realise his long-held ambition of a reign in which people are taught to read and widely educated and in which there is a more ready acceptance of that which does not conform to rigid stereotypes. he has his relationship with Art and Gwen has hers with Bridget. And of course, Agnes and Sidney have theirs. Not a facile happy ever after but a most satisfying ending for the characters we have grown to love.