Last month I posted my observations and opinions on The Sea Between the Stars, the award-winning two-page backstory companion to Alex Wallis' debut novel, The Way Knight.
I was not prepared for how gripping, powerful, and evocative it was. Wallis, who does extensive work with troubled youths, created such an authentic character in Daimonia, a tragic young women emotionally scarred by an absent mother who withheld love and emotion.
It was superb, to say the least. I could hardly wait to tear into The Way Knight itself.
Now, I will say this. The brevity of The Sea Between the Stars added to the overall impact of the narrative. It is an excellent little piece of gothic literature, but it doubles as a real emotional punch to the gut. The Way Knight offers a distinctly different format; yet with the same level of authorial excellence. In short; while The Sea Between the Stars functioned as an extremely effective "living ghost story", The Way Knight is more in line with a dark, gritty fantasy tale elevated by the intimate exploration of the deeply troubled protagonist's personality.
Before we get into the actual review, here is the blurb again:
"THE WAY KNIGHT is the terrifying tale of a girl’s journey from child, to woman, to goddess. It is a provocative story that will challenge everything you believe.
Daimonia is a wild and impulsive girl, who fears she is unlovable. When corrupt politicians execute her brother, she travels to find her mother — the famous hero who abandoned her years before.
To survive the treacherous journey, she hires the Way Knight — a travelling warrior sworn to protect anyone who pays his fee, no matter how dangerous the journey, or hopeless their cause.
Together they will chance the battle-torn coast, pursued by the champion of the Secret God."
Daimonia lives in the land of Jaromir with her grandfather, Jhonan. Jhonan is a most formidable former Knight of the Accord (the prevailing code of conduct/chivalry), who tried his best, ill-suited as he was for the task, to raise Daimonia and her brother Niklos after their mother left them to pursue her own interests.
As deep as the emotional scars carved into her psyche by her mother run, there are still things that bring some joy to Daimonia; one is the inspiration she receives from the performances of epic plays by traveling actors, and another is visits from her idealistic brother Niklos, now a fully-fledged Knight of the Accord.
However, as these things often happen, under the noble veneer of concepts such as the Accord are the underpinnings of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Springing from these roots are considerable acts of decadence and depravity by the powers that be, put into action by those who wield the military might of the law; namely the Knights. This "getting along by going along" mantra does not sit well with Niklos, and it leads to his death.
Devastated by the loss of her brother, and enraged by the revealed corruption permeating throughout the ruling class, Daimonia sets off to find her mother, who is castellan of a far off stronghold. By joining with her mother she hopes to...what? Crusade for justice? Or perhaps just be reunited with the cold, distant figure. Or, maybe, hope that personally delivering the news of Niklos' death will reveal some hurt, and therefore some emotion, on the face of her callous, phantom mother.
To aide her in her journey, Daimonia enlists the help of the titular Way Knight, Goodkin. Way Knights are hired fighters, not exactly standard sellswords, but more like transportation bodyguards or caravan guards. Goodkin is taciturn, formidable, and has a face which is a horrific latticework of earned battle scars.
And so the group (which also includes a traveling merchant, his son, and a refugee family), heads off on their journey. Along the way they'll meet many adversaries and challenges, including more devious militant types, brigands, coastal raiders, and, worst of all, the dedicated attention of a young psychotic named Sir Conrad the Geld Knight (a Geld Knight being a type of militant levy collector).
All of this backdrop is realized well by Wallis. He has fully conceptualized and delivered his imaginary land. He institutes a governmental system, and a religious system. There is an immersive feel when the narrative enters the cities; and they are seedy, rank environments.
The fight scenes, of which there are many, are another high point. Wallis pulls no punches with showing some of the dirtier styles of fighting; situations where desperation drives the sword thrusts. He does not show brutal acts of violence simply for shock value. That would cheapen the inclusion of them. Brutal acts are done by brutal men and women as the situation calls for.
While the story has solid fundamentals, it distinguishes itself with the sheer strength of its characters. Daimonia makes for a stunningly well-rounded, genuine protagonist. As mentioned in the review for The Sea Between the Stars, Wallis taps into his own personal experience working with troubled youths to compile this remarkable young woman. Many authors make the mistake of projecting the morals and values that they find noble or positive onto a "young hero" template, trying to construct a heroic figure. Not so with Wallis and Daimonia. She is heroic for what she has survived; abandonment by her callous, narcissistic mother, the murder of her brother, etc. For all her strengths, she has her shortcomings. While she is kind and thoughtful in many ways, there is a tightly coiled anger under all of it. She makes noble gestures, but she is also prone to violent outbursts. She is also terribly impulsive; and these gestures often put her life and the lives of others at risk. And yet, you know that so much of this is the result of her being a product of her inputs. She has likable traits, but in many ways, she is also very unlikable. Like most teenagers. That's why it is historically so difficult for adults to find common ground with adolescents.
The secondary characters are all thoughtfully fleshed out as well. The maniacal Sir Conrad, for example, is not just made of psychopathic tendencies cobbled together. We learn how he was used, and learned to use, how he was manipulated, and in turn, taught how to manipulate.
Wallis cleverly keeps his titular character a rather reticent figure, challenging the reader to interpret his motives. Is it pride, concern, or simply duty that compels him? Or a certain mixture of the three? All I can say is that Goodkin steals every scene he is in, without every saying much.
I do want to mention one thing regarding the ending sequence, and I will keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but still, consider this a very SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING....
In the final few pages of the book, Wallis really ups the pace, going from 0 to 100 in a few pages as he resolves the narrative. I'll just refer to this part of the story as "Daimonia's Ascension". This part really stuck with me, and the pacing made it seem incongruous to a degree with the rest of the story. The more I thought about it, I wonder if that whole sequence is no more than "wish fulfillment" on Daimonia's part, and isn't to be taken literally. It's fairly conceivable, since Daimonia is somewhat of an unreliable protagonist (is that even a real term?). Either way, it's best for the reader to decide when they get there.
And there you have it. The Way Knight is a thought-provoking, emotionally engaging (and devastating), action-packed dark fantasy tour de force. It comes in at a trim 150 pages, with no words wasted, or lacking. Check it out today, available at Amazon.
Cover Score and Illustrations:
I personally love a few complimentary illustrations in my fantasy books. The Way Knight has a solid cover by Phil Ives (love the somber tone and color contrast. The only thing that throws me is that Daimonia's upper arm looks a bit overly long).
You also get some nice interior illustrations by Anastasia Ilicheva. These are nice additions; simple, yet evocative.
Cover/Illustrations Final Score: