Looking for the King - A Review

A classic tale of how not to amalgamate two books. The first a thriller set in 1940s England, visiting some of the key Authurian sites searching for a lost relic. The second… and no doubt the reason for the sub-title ‘An Inklings Novel’… introduces us to Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. I enjoyed the second book, although all the time I kept asking myself why it was part of the first.

The ‘Inklings’ passages are interesting, and the Williams’ lecture (described at length and drawing closely from Lewis description of Charles Williams’ famous Divinity School lecture, really captures the spirit of that ‘difficult’ writer (I write as a long-term member of the Charles Williams Society). BUT, in a novel?

As I started to read I really wanted to be impressed and enthralled by this book. David Downing is obviously a gifted scholar, especially in Inklings studies. But as another reviewer has put it, “If we wanted presentations of the Inklings, there are biographies and letters, and Warnie Lewis’ diary in which he very vividly describes his friends.” I know, several of Warnie’s books are in my personal ‘Inklings’ library.

Certainly ‘Looking for the King’ is a nice concept, and blends supposed historical fact with some nice geographical and cultural background into a story that draws the reader along. But the ‘Inklings’ passages seem somehow to intrude on the thrust of the plot. All in all, I think it was a good try, but it just fell too short of the mark for me, maybe another 100 pages would have allowed the author to really do his interesting concept justice.

There are some questions about the language that I have written about in my ‘first view’ below in this weblog, and the ‘villains’ turn out to be rather weak and hardly terrifying either.

One question that really bothered me: how did Tom and Laura manage to get the petrol coupons to travel just so far on a motorcycle and sidecar. In early 1940s England, immersed as it was in a draconian rationing regime, how did visiting Americans manage quite to travel quite so easily?

A final point. Any plot that turns on the dreams of the one of the protagonists has simply got to be risible. The dénouement was unsatisfactory and left me wishing Downing had found a way to play the plot line out into a farther reaching story with more at stake.

Did I enjoy it? The Williams passages, yes. The rest, well I have read worse.

‘Looking for the King’ is published in the United States by Ignatius Press, San Francisco.


Anonymous said...

I read the novel and enjoyed all the Inklings chapters, Lewis and Tolkien as well as Williams. They came to life much more than in Humphrey Carpenter's rather perfunctory Inklings scene in his otherwise fine collective biography.

Yes, the other chapters had some good banter, but the sense of danger or jeopardy was rather muted.

As to petrol rationizing, it wasn't that draconian until later in the war, and a daytrip on a motorcycle would only use a few gallons. But, really, that is a small matter, isn't it? Among American editors, readers who pick up a book simply to find real or supposed errors are known as the "Gotcha Gang." Surely, there are higher pleasures in reading a book.

I can't help but get the sense that this reviewer is working overtime to try and find reasons not to like this novel because it is written by an American.

Downing has said in several published interviews that the young lady's visionary dreams are an homage to both Jane Studdock in THS and Pauline Ansthruther in Descent into Hell. So I suppose you will have to add Lewis and Williams to your list of risible novelists.

Your earlier blog started out with how the American prose "betrayed" that it was written by an American author and published by an American house. One can't help but shake a sense that you sat down to read this novel looking for reasons to dismiss it, finding real and supposed "errors," such as that Americans are supposed to think and talk like Englishmen.

It' ironic, because there is a passage in the novel where the two young Americans talk about how Brits have a tendency to look down at Americans, assuming a certain cultural superiority without ever demonstrating it.

Too bad. I think I'll look to Amazon.com or elsewhere for more fair-minded or even-handed reviews.

Roger R. said...

Dear Anonymousd...

Not in the least. I really wanted the book to be a success... and of course any review can always be dismissed for one reason or another. I spoke as I found.

As to having some sort of grudge against American writers... hardly. Many are right up there as far as I am concerned.

I think you will find similar reviews all over the place on the web... amazon too. Something must be wrong with all those who found the book weak.

All of course, IMHO.

Jessica Laura Washington said...

I have to say I read both of your reviews and skimmed the first one, and I don't find you to dislike Americans at all. You were also correct in saying that other reviewers feel the same as you about the book. I don't care either way, as I will not read it but I wanted you to know there is someone out there who doesn't think that you look down on us (Americans).

Thanks for the honest review!