Martin H. Greenberg
& John Helfers, editors,
Knight Fantastic
(DAW, 2002)

They traveled the world in elaborate costumes, sidekicks in tow, to foil the deeds of villains both human and alien, threats both mystic and mundane. No, not superheroes -- knights! Or at least the knights of myth. The mystically noble warrior, pure of heart and deed, is probably about as authentic as the air castle at a Renaissance Festival. It's appealing, but a brief overview of history shows knights to be privileged, well-armored soldiers with no more virtue than any other group of fighting men. It takes a very good yarn to pull me into the Noble Paladin myth, but Knight Fantastic offers stories strong enough to sway even a suspicious peasant like myself.

Knight Fantastic sings into motion with a ballad by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple honoring one of the most famous knights of all time, the woman Bradamante. While the verses and tune are solid, they're also brief, and don't cover even a sliver of the whole Bradamante story. I was very surprised to see her given such a brief treatment, and left wanting to see the rest of the ballad.

More satisfying is Andre Norton's "Red Cross, White Cross." One of the least fantastic stories in this collection, "Red Cross, White Cross" offers no otherworldly miracle. There are only two knights, a Knight Templar made criminal by a change in the tastes of the king, and his brother, who follows his orders to destroy the Templars even though that includes his own brother. The struggle between personal duty and loyalty to a larger cause is very finely drawn, and makes the least magical tale in the book one of the best.

"Squire Thorian's Trial" also presents a knight with a choice between serving the knightly code and protecting his family, but with rather less subtlety. A knight facing his qualifying trials must choose to cheat, win and support his family, or stay honest at the cost of a life of poverty for his disabled daughter. No one at all familiar with the knight story structure can be in much tension about his choice, or its consequences. "Squire Thorian" could be a standard for knight stories, and that means doing the right thing is a mystic ward against too much misfortune.

More confused moral stories drive a knight insane in Brendan Du Bois' "The Cross of God." A brave knight, cousin to a churchman, marches to the Crusades under the banner of his God, thrilled to be driving out the infidels for the sake of all that's decent. But when a local mystic forces him to view the future, when men marching under a slightly altered cross will create the greatest evil the world has known, he loses the faith that drives him to battle. Faith is plainly a matter for the church, but can even the church take the stain off his future vision?

Tanya Huff offers a peek at a Pratchettesque version of the Round Table as seen by those who know it best -- the janitors. During the "Nights of the Round Table," Mother Orlan and her granddaughter Anda attempt to clean the hall of King Arthur's chief furniture, but keep getting interrupted by the knights, who come to the table to sulk, seek the Grail and get a little of Mother Orlan's sage advice. Huff pokes fun at Arthur's knights without dishonoring them and manages to spoof everything from the Grail Quest to Lancelot's doomed affair. If you don't laugh out loud at least once per page at this story, you're reading it wrong.

Esther Friesner also casts the workers of Camelot as stars in "In Days of Old," as two unfortunate guardsmen accidentally let one of Arthur's noble knights re-enter Camelot. "In Days Of Old" would have impressed me more if it hadn't been in a book with "Nights of the Round Table." Still, this skewed look at Camelot, featuring Arthur as a lecherous fornicator, is a strong little tale in its own right, and gives the true story behind the vision that sent the Camelot knights running after a cup.

In "Father of Shadow, Father of Light" Russell Davis moves far, far away from the Arthurian knights, taking us to a war between humans and elves, which humans may lose by victory. Only the prophesied child can warn them of the danger, and only his father can save them from it. But this means the greatest warrior of the human army must find the courage to surrender victory. General Rellick walks as close to darkness as any knight, contemplating the infanticide of his own child. Though it stands on its own, "Father of Shadow" feels like prequel, the origin story of a fantasy population. As far as I know, there are no further adventures of General Rellick's people.

The Knights Templar and their ending seem a popular subject for stories. Jean Rabe tracks the escape of a knight who carries the order's most precious treasure. The cynical sea captain who bears witness to the "Buried Treasure" is a fine character, and his grudging nobility is a believable version of the Knight's inhuman devotion to his Order.

Kristin Schwengel's "In a Lifetime" is more of a fairy story than a knight's tale. Fighting for pay, his memory blissfully wiped, Gedyr wanders the land for centuries, gradually becoming concerned with his lost past. The bittersweet ending is highly satisfactory. This story is reminiscent of ballads like Tam Lin and True Thomas, and feels "period" without the happy ending or detailed explanation of magic modern authors are so often compelled to use. There's fairy lurking in Nina Hoffman's "Faint Heart, Foul Lady" as well, though no medieval balladeer would have popularized this tale of feminine mettle and weak knights. And if the star of "Knight Mare" has nothing to do with fairyland, how else to explain a horse with more common sense than her knight, and voice to show it?

Of course, not every story in an anthology can please every reader. I was especially nonplussed by Bradley H. Sinor's "And the Wind Sang," which casts Lancelot as a vampire for no apparent reason, and proceeds to go nowhere. Fans of the romantic vampire may enjoy this one, but it seems like myth mixing for no good effect.

Rosemary and India Edghill's detective story "Killer in the Reign" also mixes genres, but with far more success. While the Chandlerspeak fades quickly, the Edghills manage to maintain a gritty urban detective feel in a medieval romantic setting. The twist on "Burd Janet," the portrayal of Elfland as a hostile but enchanting place, all work to create an atmosphere where a gumshoe and a dragon can both fit in.

Fiona Patton's "Captain of the Guard" introduces an undoubtedly noble knight named Viktor Endrik. Endrik is clever and skilled, more captivated by the strange than frightened of it, and serves his master well ... but that master is a demon, defending his castle and his monsters from an attacking human force. Endrick, for all that he loves his master, is still human, but watches calmly as the merely human forces lose ground. Facing not only demons, but men of such courage, the human war leaders resort to sabotage, and Endrik's true challenge is not the force outside the gates, but finding the traitor in his own ranks. Patton's careful storytelling follows Endrik's suspicions without giving away the mystery until the last moment, and Endrik's position as a noble servant of evil makes "The Captain of the Guard" stand out in a mythos of clean moral choices.

Knight Fantastic ends on a confused note, with Michelle West's somewhat abstract "The Knight of Hydan Athe." Magic and folklore wind around the future Wise Woman of Hydan Athe, a confused, lovesick girl named Sanna, who once fell for the future Knight of Hydan Athe. That young man now seems changed, turned callous and shallow by his time in the outside world. Sanna is a confused character, believably confused for a young girl facing not only adulthood, but a calling. There are problems herewhat's the purpose of the flower? What ties the Knight of Hydan Athe to the land? Sanna's likeability carries the story through its muddled points, but it's not the most triumphant ending.

Few still believe that knights wandered the land slaying dragons and outwitting magicians, and maybe they weren't even especially clean or kind. But when times were dark and dreams were weak, the tale of a perfect hero in shining armor could give people something to hope for. That spirit of nobility lights up Knight Fantastic.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002

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