Gollancz brought Pevel to the attention of the Anglophone reading public with his Cardinal’s Blades (Les Lames du Cardinal) trilogy—Dumas-inspired novels of swashbuckling conspiracy, Parisian mud, and Spanish dragons. Now they’re following up with The Knight (Le Chevalier), a much more straightforward epic fantasy.
It’s not quite as fun.
The Knight is the story of Lorn Askarian, a close friend of the prince of the High Kingdom and a respected officer, who is convicted of a crime and spends three years in an inimical prison. When he’s freed by the fiat of the aging, all-but-incapable High King (a High King manipulated into this act by a mysterious group of men called “the Guardians,” who insist Lorn has an important destiny), he’s not the same man he was before. He’s been marked by a force known as the Dark, and left subject to black moods and unexpected rages.
And determined upon revenge. But the King has a job for him, nonetheless, and Lorn is willing to go along because it will bring him closer to his own ends.
During the King’s infirmity, the Queen and her advisors have been negotiating a treaty to cede the city of Angborn to the High Kingdom’s historic enemy, Yrgaard—a kingdom ruled by the Black Dragon, a being with an affinity for the Dark. Many of the kingdom’s nobles disapprove of this treaty, but the kingdom is in desperate want of money, and the Yrgaardians will provide coin. Lorn, tasked with rebuilding the Onyx Guard and asserting the King’s authority, decides his primary job is to defend the High Kingdom. The money would help with that.
The cession of a city wouldn’t.
Narratively, this is a rather scattered novel. While the focus stays on Lorn, it’s difficult to identify a single through-line: there are self-contained episodes within the overall story with little hint as to how they all relate together, and the book plays the age-old (and somewhat annoying) trick of hiding information known to the characters from the reader. And the especially annoying fantasy trick of having characters who know more than everyone else appear and hover mysteriously in the interstices of the action, reminding one and all that Destinies Are At Stake.
The prose isn’t anything in particular to write home about—which might be an artefact of translation—and there are lines where one says to oneself: Yes, that would make more sense in French. This too many be an artefact of translation, but stylistically it reminds me of the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski: there’s a brisk energy and a vitality to the text, especially where it comes to action scenes, but little of the interior reflection, the “he thought” and view of the inner self, that one is used to from fantasy novels written in English. The voice is compelling—but it’s a very different voice.
There’s a lot of moral grey areas—our protagonist, Lorn, is pretty much all greys—and there’s plenty of killing, and of corrupt militia officers abusing the powers of their office. It’s not Crapsack World Everyone’s An Asshole fantasy, though, and for the most part, The Knight is an entertaining read, despite my occasional bafflement at some of its structural and narrative choices.
What’s not entertaining is Pevel’s approach to female characters. It’s sadly too common to see few-to-no female characters in epic fantasy, save for the odd evil one, or ineffectual one, or whore. Here we have a handful of female characters, but with the exception of the Queen—who fills the role of “beautiful vain manipulative power-hungry” woman admirably—none of them have a significant presence in the narrative, two are characterised by their ability at manipulation (and/or attempts to manipulate Lorn), and one is an object of desire for Lorn and ends up in need of rescue. This is a failure of imagination, and one that makes the book less interesting, and less enjoyable, than it might otherwise have been.
The Knight is an interesting example of a fantasy novel in conversation with different literary traditions than the ones with which I’m most familiar, and for that alone I’m not sorry to have read it. But while it’s entertaining, it’s less successful in its storytelling than the novels of “The Cardinal’s Blades.” I’m not sure it appealed to me enough for me to want to pick up its sequel, when it comes.
The Knight is available now in the UK from Gollancz.