Imagine a 1984 London where society has frozen at turn-of-the-century levels, a King is randomly selected from the populace, and nobody really takes politics seriously.
Of course, it only takes one wise, weird little man to turn all of that on its head. G.K. Chesterton's magnificently absurd comic novel explores a common theme in his books -- a person who entertains himself with an absurdly serious world -- in an increasingly heated situation where the little boroughs of London have become warring kingdoms. Not much in the way of sci-fi, but a delicious little social satire.
Friends of the eccentric Auberon Quin are understandably shocked when he is selected as the new King of England... especially since his main focus is definitely not power ("Oh! I will toil for you, my faithful people! You shall have a banquet of humour!"). After bumping into a young boy with a toy sword, Quin decides to revive the old city-states of medieval times, with city walls, banners, halberdiers, coat of arms, and ruling provosts -- all as a joke.
But ten years later, a young man named Adam Wayne -- who happens to be the little boy who inspired Quin -- refuses to let a road go through Notting Hill. Quin is first delighted and then perplexed by Wayne, a man who treats the King's joke with deadly seriousness. Now a full-out medieval battle is brewing between the boroughs of London, and Auberon Quin finds that his joke may have some very serious consequences...
G.K. Chesterton was no H.G. Wells when it came from trying to imagine the future --- the 1984 London he imagined was pretty much the same, technologically and socially, as the London of 1904. It's the message that important in this tale, as personified first by a deposed president and then by Wayne -- pride and patriotism in one's country and culture, especially a small one, is something to be prized.
And Chesterton handles this concept with a sense of humor worthy of Quin, outright mocking the respectable and boring ("The provost of West Kensington is mad because he thinks he is respectable, as mad as a man who thinks he is a chicken!"). The humor starts off fairly ordinary (Quin standing on his head as he's declared king) and moves into more sophisticated realms with the elaborate medieval games. It would be scary to contemplate, if it weren't so hilarious.
The greatest satire is in this future society itself, and it's occasionally scary to contemplate. With his knowledge of human nature, Chesterton predicts ennui, complacency, disdain of religion, cultural indifference, and a public oblivious to the mad wackiness of their leaders because they just don't care. It hits a little too close to home.
His writing is full of color and striking description ("... a blue and gold glittering thing, running very fast, which looked at first like a very tall beetle"). And while the battle of Notting Hill doesn't really pull you in, the powerful speeches that are given during important scenes -- such as when Quin talks to Wayne about the damage his joke has caused -- are among Chesterton's best dialogue.
Auberon Quin is a pretty fun character, acutely aware of life's absurdity and determined to have as much fun from it as possible -- but he becomes a bit more serious at the prospect of people being killed. Wayne is the complete opposite -- young, passionate, intense, and vehemently patriotic. He's set apart from all those stuffy codgers because his love is not for respectability and normalcy, but for his home of Notting Hill.
Chesterton may have gotten the future of England all wrong, but "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" is still a wildly amusing little satire, with two very different heroes and a very unrecognizable London. A deserving classic.