BOOK REVIEW: The Red Knight

theRedKnight

The Red Knight by K.T. Davies, pub Anachron Press (ISBN 9780957261518)

I don’t read books from Small Press publishers often enough.  This will be of no surprise to regular listeners of Scrolls, who’ll be chipping in to tell me that I don’t read anything often enough, and why don’t I stop piddling about with these other distractions and focus?  Well, there are reasons for both, but I’m only going to talk about the Small Press thing here.

The perception is that only big publishers handle big talent.  There’s only so many books you can read, so why settle for anything less?  Well, the Indie-publishing scene is a testing ground for new talent, unrestricted by genre fads and the pressure to produce hit after hit.  It has the same inherent value as a pack of mixed seeds – some will never grow, some will be unconventionally charming, while others will sprout and flourish beyond expectation.  The thrill lies in seeing what they can produce next, and I’m ashamed to say that I’m as prone as the next person to just buying ‘roses.’  The Red Knight is K.T. Davies‘ first full-length published novel and it stands here as a fine illustration of why we need independent publishers.

 

 

The plot deals broadly with a struggle between two brothers over who will rule, played out across the fields of battle and intrigue.  Our main viewpoint characters are Alyda Stenna, Captain of ‘The Hammer’ (an elite force of mounted knights); Garian Tain, a covert operative; and Kasper Thorgulsson, a foreign war leader brought in to help usurp the kingdom.  While magical elements are integral to the world building, they don’t overwhelm what feels in many ways to be a military novel.  The book is neither a game changer nor the revelation of a major new talent, for reasons I’ll touch upon later, but it still manages to surprise the reader and delight or disgust when appropriate.

Perhaps the most striking quality of the book is its baseline equality.  Many roles we would blithely assume to be filled by male characters are shared by women at every level of Antian society.  No big deal is made of it in the text, yet it makes a huge impression – at least to this reader.  It’s horrifying to realise that we expect and accept sexism in genre fiction to such a degree that its simple absence should be a cause for comment.  I was forced to consider just how many female-led fantasy books I’ve actually encountered, let alone ones where the high status of the lead character is not deemed an exception.  Davies’ world-building coup is simple and beautifully in-built from page 1 – Women are as capable as men.  Obviously.  Get over it.

Ali is a well-rounded character, but she is, first and foremost, a knight.  Davies plays quite nicely with the difference between personal and public perceptions, showing us her tough, coldly professional exterior one minute, and then convincingly lifting the lid on the loyal, proud, and passionate person within.  One of the things I admired was the way the cost of leadership was portrayed, distancing her from the people she’s trying to protect.

Stenna’s definitely a character you can get behind, but she is a hard person to love.  Initially, I thought it flagged a weakness in Davies’ writing, but the sheer joy of spending time with Lady ‘Bear’ Berwick proves that the author knows how to craft a character to purpose.  If Alyda feels like a person too wrapped up in her duty to have much time to live, it’s because that’s how she deals with things.  Bear has her own (spectacular) control issues, but she throws herself at life with a dangerous glee that really put a smile on my face.

The male characters are less well defined, to my disappointment.  The world of intrigue that Garian inhabits is full of moral tension and dramatic potential, yet he feels wasted – an ephemeral personality that boils down to being a good person in a bad job.  Thorgulsson is a stronger presence, acting as both personal antagonist to Alyda and a dominant male antagonist to the egalitarian ideal of Antia.  In many ways he is a vile man, but Davies grants him enough charisma and intelligence to provide a little counterbalance to his brutal misogyny.  Unfortunately, it felt like his testosterone became a convenient excuse to make really stupid tactical mistakes, though, and that is harder to forgive.

I think I wanted to like this book more than I ultimately did, but the author has not been served well by her editors.  My main issue with the book was the pacing.  Too much time was spent introducing characters before anything really happened.  One or two early scenes were cracking – the hunt for the assassin in the crowds was a particular stand-out, with a beautiful denouement – but far too much time is spent in exposition.  Superfluous characters are set up only to be forgotten as the tale progresses and, while some people and plot elements will undoubtedly be developed in future volumes, the reader is left with that blind-man’s buff feeling for the first half of the book until the plot suddenly kicks in.

I liked the hearing scene, loved the melee combat and the flashback to Alyda’s fight with the Shadewalker, but was then left aghast at the seemingly endless escape from Weyhithe.  Meanwhile, Prince Talin has gone through at least two books worth of character development in a pretty short time, leaping from lecherous playboy to earnest soldier by way of a (sometimes enjoyable, sometimes irritating) romantic sub-plot.  While none of these issues killed the book for me, I can’t help feeling that a tighter editorial process could have smoothed a lot of them out, encouraging a more integrated approach to character and world building and giving the whole project a sharper focus.

Overall the book is a mixed bag, then.  Cultural, religious and sexual bigotry is handled well; there are some genuinely engaging character relationships, and some lively turns of phrase.  When she gets into her zone, Davies can write thrilling action, chilling horror and touching scenes of great delicacy.  I liked the sense of magic being degraded in potency, though not entirely forgotten, and there are some neat bits of world-building that are begging to be expanded.

On the flip side, the story takes a good while to find its feet and generally feels like it needed another couple of drafts before hitting the shelves.  Also, we never really understand the significance of the Red Knight prophecy, why the Vodoni drugged Garian or what the flip is going on with the crazy old shape-shifter at the start of the book.  Answers may well arise in the next volume, of course, so we’ll have to wait and see.  I don’t think this series will be a big hit but the author shows potential and is clearly honing her craft.  I look forward to seeing what she does with it.  In the meantime, if you’re after something with a different flavour, want to read a fantasy book that respects women as human beings (or simply wish to support the independent market) then you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of The Red Knight.  And if this particular book doesn’t grab your fancy, why not have a look around and see what else you can find on the Indie scene?  I will be.

 

Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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