***Very Minor Spoilers***
Disclosure: My wife met the author at a gathering before Christmas and was gifted a signed copy of the book.
I’m not the hugest fan of fantasy. I’ve played table-top RPG’s for over 30 years, a hobby which led to me reading numerous genre faves. I came to the conclusion that fantasy is as laden with crap as most other genres, if not more so. This is rather disappointing. Part of the problem is that it’s often formulaic. Another Campbellian hero’s journey. Another farm-boy* becomes king/demigod/whatever of a world populated by the mythical beasts/creations of other people. Yawn. That’s not to say there isn’t some seriously good stuff out there, but the signal-to-noise ratio was so poor I gave up reading fantasy a while back. For every ‘Game of Thrones’ there’re twenty ‘Wheel of Time’s, or so at least it seems to me. My view is therefore, admittedly, not up-to-date. With that out the way, let me just say if other modern fantasy is as good as this, I may well be giving it another shot.
‘The Red Knight’ kicks ass as hard as a bucking war-horse applying steel-shod hoof to carelessly exposed buttock. The world is stock-seeming (note the ‘seeming’ there) low-to-mid fantasy – the supernatural forces that once ran rampant in the world are massively in decline with humanity in various flavours mediaeval as the dominant race. There are still traces of the Old World, ancient magics woven into the stones of castles, shape-shifters prowl the night, Fey artefacts in the hands of mortals. What Davies does extremely well is hint at the secrets of the world – the magic, politics and indeed characters** are oft half-glimpsed and tantalisingly unexplored.
It’s against this backdrop that we are introduced to protagonist Alyda Stenna, Captain of the elite First Company of the Royal Guards, the ‘Hammer of Antia’. Already in her prime, Stenna is a badass of epic proportions – tough, resourceful and ruthless, she cuts a swath across battlefields, whilst upholding her rigid code of honour. We also meet Garian Tain, a young spy, nimble of foot and mind, a killer with a conscience. It didn’t take long to realise the story truly is in the realms of fantasy – characters are given equal respect, depth and dimensionality regardless of gender or sexuality. For that reason alone the book is worthwhile, showing that even in the Boys Club of fantasy, it isn’t that difficult to have interesting women – just treat them like, y’know, people.***
Rather than go into detail about the story itself, all you need to know is there’s politics, betrayal, battles, sex, magic, elemental dragon beasties, ancient Fey sorcerers, gruelling torture, alcohol and drug abuse, romance. All the good stuff. I seriously hope there’s going to be a sequel soon not least because of a) where it ended being an obvious set-up and b) a couple of characters escape a savage beating with the Mallet of Righteous Über-violence.
The writing is assured so pages seemingly turn themselves whilst dialogue often has a really sly, cool wit to it.
Minor nit-picks: the first thirty pages are ever so slightly over-written before relaxing into a much less self-aware, more fluid style and there’s a little much ‘I’ve done my research’ about armour showing. But you know what, this is me reaching to criticise because the rest of it is so damned good.
Hugely recommended for those that like complex interesting characters, subverted tropes/clichés and more depth than usual to the ‘big people hitting one another with heavy implements’. Not that there isn’t plenty of that too…
*When my dictatorship takes over, farms are going to get hit hard. Farm-boys seem to be the biggest source of trouble for evil empires.
**I seriously want a story about the Black Duchess. KT, make it so…
***Before anyone gives me the ‘women in combat isn’t realistic’ bullshit allow me to introduce some ideas to your tiny brain. 1) Population distribution curves – the average man may be bigger than the average woman but there are large areas of overlap. There are a number of women I know who could in all likelihood kick your head off or out lift you. 2) You’re quibbling about realism in a fantasy novel? Srsly? Back to your cave with you.