on 11 June 2004
Are you tired of generic fantasy? If you are, and you saw a book titled The Knight in your bookstore travels, would you pick it up? Maybe, but probably not. However, you then glance at the author's name, and you see "Gene Wolfe." If you're a big fantasy or science fiction fan, that name may be enough to make you pause. You've heard so many raves about this man's writing that you look a bit closer. You read the dust jacket. What's this? A story about a young man in his teens "transported to a magical realm" where he is transformed into a man and works at becoming a knight? What is this? Do they seriously expect us to buy a book so mundane?
Given all of that, The Knight has a lot going against it. But it has one major thing going for it that gets past all that: Gene Wolfe. I have never read any of Wolfe's books, but he has such a reputation among the SF crowd that I decided to give this book a chance. Am I glad I did. The Knight takes all of the cliches of the sword & sorcery genre and turns them on their heads. The boy, Able, does not turn into the manly hero overnight, as normally happens. He does not meet the normal wizards and other bad folk that lesser writers employ as villains. Able is on a quest for a magic sword, which he must steal from a dragon. However, he refuses to wield any sword until he wins this one, and he does not become a master swordsman in one fell swoop. In fact, he gets by on a little luck and a lot of help from his friends, especially a dog that is not really a dog. This, coupled with the wonderful Wolfe prose that I've heard so much about makes this book a real winner.
The book is written in first person, a letter or story written to his older brother in the "real" world. It's unclear when Able wrote this, but he obviously hasn't grown up too much, or at least he hasn't gained much skill in writing. He goes back and forth at times, omitting important details other times. He gets petulant, and the point of view is obviously that of a boy trying hard to be a man. Lesser writers would use this as an excuse for bad writing, but Wolfe's intentions are clear, winking at the reader and showing us that he is definitely doing this intentionally. Able is an unreliable narrator, seeming not to know when he's forgetting some of the more interesting stuff.
Wolfe captures Able beautifully, making us care about what happens to him despite him being fairly unlikable. He can treat people horribly, often without realizing it. This is especially true of two of his "slaves," Fire Aelf women who revel in trying to entice him into forgetting all of this Knight business and instead have fun with them. While he is successful in resisting them, in doing so he often treats them worse then even slaves deserve. He also forgets about his "dog" Gylf at times, even when Gylf has been away for very long periods of time. In fact, the only two people he treats with much respect at all are the two knights who assist him on the road to knighthood: Sir Garvaon and Sir Ravd. Ravd teaches him what knightly qualities are, including what it takes to actually be a knight. Garvaon begins to teach him swordcraft.
The minor characters are great, even though we have to peer through Able's narrative to see them. Garvaon and Ravd are honorable men who have an illustrious shine put on them by Able's words, but even the lesser characters are distinctive and well-characterized. Gylf is one of the best, when he's willing to talk that is (he won't talk if anybody else is around). He has a small sense of humour and is very plain, but he is vicious when his master needs protecting. It's unclear what he truly is, though he is definitely a creature from a different realm (there being seven, one on top of another, in the mythos Wolfe creates), but beyond that we don't know. Wolfe keeps him simple but mysterious, and I hope we find out more about him in the second book.
For a book like this, there is surprisingly little action in it. With the exception of one battle (and even that is truncated), there is very little description of the various battles in which Able is involved. Instead, Able tells all of these stories in hindsight, giving us the effect of them without the actual battle scenes. I don't know whether Wolfe is showing us how these scenes are ultimately uninteresting or if it's a conceit of Able's narration, but I found it intriguing how the text shies away from the subject. Garvaon's sword lessons are told in great detail, but these are mostly dialogue between the two characters so it's quite different. Instead, we get a lot of characterization, philosophy, and weird images. Some of Able's dreams will have to be read more than once to even begin to understand what they mean, and some of them may not be explained until the second book. Wolfe succeeds in making the book impossible to put down despite the lack of action.
Ultimately, The Knight is a rewarding read for those tired of the typical fantasy hack-n-slash festivals. Wolfe takes everything you thought you knew and turns out a thoroughly unpredictable read that will keep you going well past your bedtime. Don't let the generic title and plot description fool you. This is one of the greats.