Knight’s Wyrd by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald (Tor, 2023)
Review by Warner Holme: Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald’s Knight’s Wyrd is a short medievalist fantasy book that makes a large number of unusual decisions. A short novel like this can slip through the cracks easily, and the focus Tor Essentials is giving it with this re-release shows someone thinks it’s deserved.
The story centers on a young man named Wil Oddosson. He is betrothed, well intentioned, in line for a knighthood, and has a certain sense of honor. At the beginning of the story he is out with some others and an old lady’s pig is nearly stolen by outlaws. He ends up in a fight killing them and finds the whole thing uncomfortable yet a certain kind of necessary.
From this and to his knighting shortly afterward it becomes increasingly clear that there are any number of pitfalls that might happen to a young knight and his friends. Odd incidents of large creatures in the water, accidentally fatal sojourns through the woods, and dire portents follow wherever they go.
While Will is not the only character of note on the story, focusing on them heavily ignores that the story is not focused on that material. Instead this is a plot and atmosphere that serve as greater pillars, feeling more medieval than most fantasy yet maintaining a steady unnatural and off putting ambiance that draws the reader deeper page by page through the journey the young man goes through.
The introduction, while well written, does much to subvert the ending, so spoiler fearing individuals would do well to skip it. On the other hand for an experienced reader of this story, or merely one who is not concerned about such matters coming to light, it is a well written introduction that helps to illustrate the many ways in which this story can grab a reader.
For most of the book the narrative feels very much out of the medieval storytelling tradition. Wizards rarely have big flashy powers, fights against strange monstrosities are heard about second or more hand and likely mere fanciful tales, and honor is met with treachery. In spite of all of this the idea that there are innately worthwhile acts is put into place and generally holds. The chief separation from medieval texts tends to be the permeating and deliberate air of uncertainty, of worry and precarious existence that holds throughout the text.
While set in a medievalist society complete with obvious class divides and confusing mixtures between the real and Fantastical this book is not one to simply rest on assumptions. There are few women as major characters, but the ones who appear are as well thought out as many of the men. The supernatural events and tasks, weather dream like visions or happening in the present, serve to illustrate a world filled with grays.
Knight’s Wyrd is a short and strange novel. It is also utterly brilliant. A carefully constructed combination of realistic and fantastic elements for a level of society create an atmosphere that shifts from disturbingly mundane to dreamlike on a pin yet never seem out of place. Thoroughly recommended to all (even curious) parties.