Exclusive Interview: “Perilous Times” Author Thomas D. Lee


Of all the things people have suggested to solve England’s Brexit mistake, none have been as clever or as rife with televisual possibilities as Thomas D. Lee’s modern fantasy take on King Arthur and The Knights Of The Round Table, Perilous Times (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Lee discusses what else inspired and influenced this fantasy tale.

Thomas D. Lee Perilous Times

Photo Credit: © Stephanie Emma Key


To start, what is Perilous Times about, and when and where does it take place?

Perilous Times takes place in Britain, at some point in the near future, in a kind of exaggerated post-Brexit dystopia. It’s a book about tired Arthurian knights who have to keep coming back from the dead whenever England is in peril. They’ve been doing this for fifteen hundred years, and they’re getting pretty tired of it at this point, especially because a sword and shield aren’t very useful weapons against contemporary problems like global warming and rising sea levels. One of the other main characters is a young eco-warrior called Mariam who’s also getting pretty fed up with trying to save the world.

It’s a fantasy novel with dragons and magic and talking squirrels, but it’s also a book about how to be a hero in the 21st century, how to be a good person in the complicated modern world. Most of us are trying to get through life without harming anyone, while being good allies to each other, and trying to reduce our carbon impact — but that’s easier said than done, and we all get it wrong from time to time. I was interested in exploring that, with complicated characters who’ve all done things that they regret, and trying to figure out what modern heroism looks like.

As you said, Perilous Times involves King Arthur and The Knights Of The Round Table. Did you set out to write a modern version of the King Arthur story, and Perilous Times is what you came up with, or did you come up with the idea for Perilous Times and then realize it would work better if it was about King Arthur and his BFFs?

Perilous Times isn’t really a modern version of the Arthur story in the sense that I’m not setting out to rewrite Le Morte d’Arthur and put my own spin on that traditional epic story of Arthur’s life and death. There are some great retellings out there, like Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone or the classic Once And Future King by T.H. White, which inspired Disney’s Sword In The Stone. Everyone’s vaguely familiar with the beats of that story: Arthur’s some ordinary kid who pulls the sword from the stone, becomes king, sets up the Round Table, looks for the Holy Grail, then Guinevere cheats on him with Lancelot, and Arthur gets killed by Mordred. But that’s not the story I’m telling here. I’m assuming that it all happened broadly the way we imagine it, but Perilous Times is set much later, a different story with the same characters.

So why did you want to put your own spin on King Arthur and The Knights Of The Round Table, and why one set in modern times?

I’d always had this idea somewhere in the back of my head. I’ve got some drawings from when I was a teenager, of an Arthurian knight fighting in World War One. But it was lying dormant until 2016, the year when Brexit happened and Trump got elected…and watching all of the Brexit news coverage, I had the thought of “right, well it’s time for King Arthur to come back and sort all of this out.” Which made me laugh almost as soon as I thought of it, because it’s an inherently funny idea. What would that actually look like? Would it be any better? Probably not. That’s where it started from. The idea of Arthurian knights fulfilling the prophecy, returning in times of peril, and being baffled by modern problems.

And once you’d decided to put your own spin on King Arthur, et al., what inspired the actual plot of Perilous Times?

At first, it was just madcap adventures of a resurrected Arthurian knight in a post-Brexit dystopia, but I knew it needed to be more than that. I spent years trying out different openings, without a clear sense of what the plot was going to be. And then in 2019 I joined Extinction Rebellion here in the U.K., I read the IPCC report on the worsening effects of global heating, and I realized that this had to be a book about climate breakdown — which gave it a connection with the land, the environment, with earth magic and eco-warriors who were fighting the save the future. And that’s where the plot grew from.

I also realized that I needed more than one knight. One of whom, Kay, is joining up with the eco-warriors to try and build a better world. And the other, Lancelot, is a jaded government hitman trying to track him down…and then I had a book, I had a plot, I knew where it was going and who the main actors were.

It sounds like Perilous Times is a fantasy story….

Yes, it is fantasy. I’m very skeptical of anyone who tries to distance themselves from commercial genre fiction by saying that it’s speculative fiction or magical realism, by saying that it “transcends its genre” or whatever. I don’t go in for that sort of thing. It’s a fantasy story, but it’s set in the real world, it’s dealing with real world problems.

Though it’s also steeped in history, because these characters lived through most of history, they met people like Robin Hood and Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill. And there’s a science fiction element to it as well. I love the place where fantasy meets sci-fi, where the past and the future collide with each other in interesting ways. I wanted to have a scene in there where Kay takes down a surveillance drone with a javelin, like the guy at that Viking re-enactment who did that in real life. But I never quite found the right place for it.

Perilous Times has also been described as being “slyly funny.” So is the humor situationally, like in a John Scalzi novel, or is it more jokey, like in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?

A mixture of both, I think. I’m not very conscious of my comedic process, I just enjoy making readers laugh, and I look out for opportunities to do that wherever I can. I enjoy putting clever little moments of wry humor in there, but I’m not above slapstick absurdity either. Lancelot has some good one-liners. There’s a running joke about cheese. Most of my early readers have said that their favorite character is Barry The Talking Squirrel. I think he might be my favorite character as well.

Also, how many jokes about Round Table Pizza are there in the book, and why was this the right amount?

I come from the wrong side of the Atlantic to know what Round Table Pizza, is but I did make a joke about Galahad at one point which I’m very proud of — it will only be funny to a very small number of Arthurian nerds and medieval literature scholars. There’s a scene in a country pub with a round table and a lot of empty chairs.

So, who do you see as being the biggest influences on the humor in Perilous Times?

Terry Pratchett. I don’t actually own many of the Discworld books, because I took them all out of the school library when I was a teenager and read through them voraciously while other people were outside playing football and getting their Vitamin D. And Douglas Adams; I have fond memories of lying on the back lawn of my grandfather’s house with a cassette player and a pair of headphones and laughing at the sky, listening to the original BBC radio play of Hitchhiker’s Guide (which is still the best version).

So I was absolutely delighted when my U.K. editor Jenni Hill told me that Perilous Times reminded her of Terry Pratchett. He’s her favorite author as well; she rolled up her sleeve and showed me her Terry Pratchett tattoo, on our first ever Zoom call, just to show that she was serious.  I have a newspaper clipping pinned up on a big magnetic whiteboard next to my writing desk, which has a picture of Terry’s face staring sternly down at me, reminding me to get my arse in gear and keep writing and not take any of this for granted.

Aside from Pratchett and Adams, are there any other writers or stories you think had a big influence on Perilous Times but not anything else you’ve written?

I was trying for years and years to get started on Perilous Times but I couldn’t get the tone right. I knew it had to be funny and serious at the same time, making people laugh while dealing with important issues like climate breakdown. And I couldn’t figure out how to do that, for the longest time. So I kept shelving the project or giving up on it, and then making new attempts from slightly different angles. And it was only when I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books that something fell into place; her contemplative style, her wry humor, her brilliant observations about the human condition. I started a new draft of Perilous Times that was saved as “thoughtful draft” or something like that…and suddenly it worked. I kept writing, and kept writing, and that became the first finished draft of the book.

How about non-literary influences; was Perilous Times influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because you can’t mention “funny” and “King Arthur” without me thinking of Monty Python And The Holy Grail.

Yes, I’ve written about the Pythons as part of my PhD. I absolutely adore that film. They really undermined the stuffy old Victorian vision of Camelot and got under the walls and exploded it, just like undermining a castle in a medieval siege. Other people have tried to put the walls back together and tell somber serious Arthurian stories, but I find it much more fun to play around in the rubble. And they were the first people brave enough to have a gay Lancelot, even if they did play it for laughs. So that was certainly an influence.

I also watched the BBC series Merlin when I was a teenager, and I’m sure that played a part as well.

And what about your pet yucca tree, Carlos? What influence did he have on Perilous Times?

Carlos would like to take this opportunity to inform everybody that his owner is a very poor botanist who misidentified him as a yucca tree when he is in fact a Dracaena, or Canary Island dragon tree. Which is much more appropriate for a book about Arthurian legends. I take very good care of Carlos — we have a longstanding agreement where I lure victims into my flat and he devours them in a horrific feeding frenzy — then, while he composts their remains and absorbs their precious nutrients, he projects kaleidoscopic visions of creative inspiration into my brain. I feel slightly bad enabling his endless hunger for human flesh, but it’s where I get all of my good ideas from. Here’s a picture, so that your readers can appreciate his majesty.

Carlos, The One And Future Dracaena


Now, fantasy novels can be stand-alone stories or the beginnings of larger sagas or ongoing adventures. What is Perilous Times?

That remains to be seen. There are certainly more stories I want to tell about Kay and Lancelot and all the other characters. Unlike Merlin I can’t see into the future, so I’ll have to be annoyingly ambiguous about it for now.

Earlier I asked if Perilous Times was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Perilous Times would work as a movie, show, or game?

I think it would make a great TV show, I’m excited to see what happens when we start auctioning the TV rights.

I can imagine it as a video game. One of the recurring themes of Perilous Times is that violence doesn’t really achieve anything, so playing as Kay and murdering waves of Saxons would sort of defeat the point. But it’s a pity there aren’t any Arthurian video games, I’d love to see an open world game where you play as an Arthurian knight.

So, if someone wanted to adapt Perilous Times into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Sir Kay and the other main characters, and why them and not John Cleese?

John Cleese might be a bit old for some of the action sequences now, but perhaps he’d surprise me. I have always, always, imagined Kay being played by Idris Elba; I practically wrote it for him. I rewatched Luther to make sure I captured his vocal mannerisms. So that would be my first choice. I’m not sure about Lancelot, because I sort of see him as a young Peter O’Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia. I wouldn’t accept anyone except Maxine Peak, for my version of Nimue. And Hugh Grant would be great as Marlowe, Lancelot’s handler, the silver fox immortal secret agent.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Perilous Times?

I’d like to talk about the character of Mariam, who is a young Muslim woman trying very hard to make the world a better place. She’s based on students who I worked with when I was a teaching assistant, one of whom complained to me once that there weren’t enough Muslim girls in fantasy novels. I might not have done a perfect job with representation, but I’ve tried to do the best job that I can, and I hope I’ve made people feel seen.

Perilous Times was a labor of love, it’s taken me many years to get it finished, to get it right, to get it edited. I hope people have fun reading it, I hope it makes people laugh.

Thomas D. Lee Perilous Times

Finally, if someone enjoys Perilous Times, what novel of someone else’s that’s also based on King Arthur and The Knights Of The Round Table would you suggest they check out?

God, there are so many out there, and they’re all so good. It’s wonderful to see the wild variety of things that people are doing with the motif of Arthur and his knights. I’ve already mentioned By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar, which is another anti-Brexit novel; he’s written a wonderfully brutal and unromantic deconstruction of the whole legend, which is wickedly funny. Lex Croucher’s coming out with a YA book called Gwen And Art Are Not In Love, which I’m looking forward to reading. There are some great feminist retellings coming out soon, like Morgan Is My Name by Sophie Keetch or Queen Of None by Natania Barron…and of course you can go back to the classic retellings by T.H. White and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Or even further back, to Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth — there can never be enough of them, in my opinion. And it’s not a competition, because Arthur belongs to everyone. Anyone can pick up Excalibur and use it to slay whatever dragon they’re trying to slay, and that’s the whole point of Arthur. I hope people are still writing about him in five hundred years.



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