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The Book of Knights, Yves Meynard, TOR, 1998, 222 pp.
After reading an excellent short story by Yves Meynard, “The Scalemen” in TesseractsQ, I wanted to find out what else Meynard had written. I was also quite curious to see if Meynard could sustain some of the elements of that short story that attracted me, like excellent characterization, vivid writing, and a highly compressed and effective sense of setting, over the course of a longer form such as a novel. I’m happy to report that my high expectations were more than fulfilled.
The Book of Knights is a fantasy novel, but one that is hard to find comparisons for. It’s not a derivative Tolkien clone, it’s not part one of a trilogy (or of a series rapidly approaching infinity, like Jordan’s tenth Wheel of Time book Crossroads of Twilight), and it’s definitely not written like many other fantasy novels that feel as if they were written for pre-teens and about characters that are essentially pre-teen. The Book of Knights is indeed about that most common of stories in fantasy, the rite of passage, but every aspect of the storyline is handled with grace and assurance, as well as a sense that adults will be enriched by reading it. Perhaps I should compare The Book of Knights to Dorsey’s Black Wine; both books subvert notions of fantasy as intended for adolescents. Meynard puts together a book much less structurally complex than Dorsey’s and this straightforward movement of the storyline is entirely appropriate for the picaresque nature of the book.
A boy named Adelrune grows up in a small village named Faudace. He lives with his step-parents, who never fail to remind him that they are doing him a huge favour. The people of Faudace subscribe to a repressive belief system; as Adelrune’s stepfather says, “‘All the wisdom of the world is to be found in the Rule and its Commentaries. All other texts are but a waste of parchment’” (9). But Adelrune finds the Book of Knights, the book of the title, in the attic of his step-parents house, and he has no idea how it got there, considering their views of such things. As the book begins, Adelrune is not old enough to read, at age 5, but the Book of Knights has pictures in it, and he is completely entranced by these pictures. And he doesn’t mind the strict and dehumanizing school regimen at the Canon House, because he learns to read, and the only book he really cares to read is the Book of Knights. By the end of the first chapter, he is ten years old, has memorized the Book of Knights from cover to cover, and plans to leave Faudace to become a knight as soon as he can. It takes another two years, and a strange encounter in the town’s toy shop, to send him on his way; by the end of the second chapter, he is well on his way to find a man named Riander, one of the best trainers of knights.
What follows is a section on Adelrune’s training under Riander, which was not the training I was expecting. Next Adelrune must go out into the world to prove his worth as a knight; this section commences as the most typical aspect of the book, a rite of passage. But Adelrune is past this soon enough, and moves on to some picaresque adventures, in the best sense of the term. I particularly liked a sequence aboard a ship so massive it is essentially an island under sail; it is here that Adelrune learns some of the harsher lessons of his time in training to become a knight.
When I mentioned before that the story of The Book of Knights is straightforward, that is not entirely true. Yes, the events of the book are told in chronological order, and yes, Adelrune is the main character and he is our viewpoint character on every page. However, the book plays with returning-to-start as structure. Adelrune chooses to go back to Faudace, and he does so before returning to Riander. The book ends with one of the few, if only, segments not from the point of view of Adelrune, and a pleasing bit of circularity.
Adelrune is the central character of the story, and our sympathies immediately go his way because of the rottenness of the people who are half-heartedly raising him. Later on, we cheer for him because of his youthfulness; in a sense, he is our avatar, just as inexperienced about how to make a way through the perils and mysteries of the magical lands of the book as we are. And thankfully, he does grow as a person over the course of the story. He begins as a boy with boyish dreams of one solitary obsession, becoming a knight, and he will belatedly discover the true cost of that calling. Rather than becoming an unstoppable killing machine, Adelrune realizes that, if anything, he must become the opposite.
Meynard is a clever, heartfelt writer, if the two attributes are not contradictory. The story of Adelrune takes an ancient and pliable storyline, the noble-hearted young boy and the rite of passage, and puts it to the use of something that is somehow richer and grander, and at times much sadder, than the old stories of chivalry. Meynard has also clearly laboured mightily to create a credible background for Adelrune and his world; the stories in the Book of Knights all feel timeworn. That might be the greatest challenge of any fantasy, to avoid tacky made-up names and a lack of authenticity. Indeed, the holistic sense of an entire society, described in detail that is not overwhelmingly thorough but always genuine, is what attracted me so much to Meynard’s short story that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It was a very pleasurable experience to find the same thing in this novel.
The Book of Knights is another handsome edition from TOR. The art on the cover is an entirely appropriate bit of medieval art (Meeting Between Parsifal and the King of Cumberland by Christian Jank), accompanied by lovely colours and an illustrated-manuscript style border. This trade paperback is a must-own.
Last modified: March 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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