Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: Lady Knight by L-J Baker

by L-J Baker
Lady Knight by L-J Baker is a very, very good romance story between a strong and honourable lady knight, and a refined, lovely and intelligent noblewoman.

If you want epic fantasy and a wide range of characters, don't bother.  If it weren't for a few hints of otherwordly powers, this would be a historical romance. If you love Arthurian tales of chivalry and love, or want to read a really good love story, then do not pass this one by.

It made a pretty big impression on me, and gave me a lot to talk about - I swear my reviews are getting longer!

The Characters
There are three main characters - our two lovers, Riannon and Eleanor, and Riannon's cousin, the powerful and manipulative Aveline. This is very much a character driven storyline (Aveline controls most of the events, while Riannon and Eleanor drive all the romance) and the viewpoint alternates between each of the three.

Riannon is a Lady Knight who generally passes for a man - and is instantly reviled when people discover she's female (yep, it's that kind of society). Disowned by her family (she is cousin to the Queen, but most of her generation don't even know of her) she's a very good fighter who has won reknown and honour... as a man. One of these feats involved a famous an anonymous act of heroism defeating an infidel champion, who left her with crippling magical wounds. Picked (by Aveline) as the first paladin of the Goddess, she's given a magical sword that heals her injuries - and she's dragged into Aveline's plots. Brought along to help escort the new wife to the King's brother (one of Aveline's order), she meets the girl's aunt, Eleanor, and falls in love.

The classic strong, modest and silent knight, Riannon has a very strong shell. She's extremely honourable, to the point of stupidity at times (in my opinion!). She lets Aveline basically dictate her actions - despite her objections, and her occasional claims that she's doing it for the Goddess, not Aveline, she ends up doing everything her cousin wants her to. Her few attempts to go her own way usually come to nothing (in other words, the perfect soldier! Obedient and not particularly curious).

The bit that frustrated me through the whole book, and felt like an unused Chekhov's Gun was the 'magiuc healing paladin sword' that Aveline claimed healed her magical wounds. It would have been perfectly simply to test this by walking away and seeing if the pain started to come back, but Riannon never even thought of this. She wasn't very good at sharing heroics or weaknesses either, so Eleanor never knew about her wounds or her paladin status.

She's extremely sensitive about her scars (the fact a chunk of her breast was cut away, and she wouldn't let Eleanor touch it reminded me of women who've lost a breast to breast cancer. It wasn't really resolved in the book, but was well handled).

Aveline is a powerful priestess and sister to the Queen. She has an enormous amount of influence and does a lot of manipulating behind the scenes. She's highly ambitious and is on a mission to reclaim the infidel lands (via crusade) for her Goddess. I'm not sure if this is a good goal or not (not enough context) - but the fact that she tends to think in terms of her personal power, when the Goddess is restored, makes me think her motives are selfishness disguised as fanaticism. Her visions are genuine - I'm suspicious enough to wonder who they're really from, but I'm pretty sure everything was supposed to be the way it appeared.

She's also a lesbian, and picks out a pretty young priestess at every place she visits. Whether this is common practice, or not I'm not sure, but there's a strong implication that she's abusing her authority. She certainly has no interest in an equal lover.

I'd admire her more if she had a shred of empathy for anyone else - she lies and railroads Riannon into playing her champion, and happily tears Eleanor away from her to keep her focussed. Very much the controller of events, she's not entirely essential to the plot - the situation was already very tense and war could have begun through a dozen different ways, and Eleanor and Riannon could have met without her. As events progress, her storyline drifts away and becomes tangential to the romance.

The fact that Riannon and Aveline were closely related to or in the royal family (even if Riannon was disowned) felt a little contrived but did make everything simpler.

Eleanor's a very rich, twice widowed lady who's never loved women before, but falls hard for Riannon. Once she realises she's in love, she seizes it with both hands.

Eleanor is independent, smart, very rich and considered either a marvelous and perfect prize or completely disregarded by others. She's the perfect foil for the self conscious Riannon who falls easily into the role of knight, to Eleanor's lady and their chemistry is very strong.

Plotwise, Eleanor's fairly passive - romantically, she does most of the work, drawing Riannon out and then making the first declaration, and making sure Riannon doesn't get to drift away and decide she isn't worth Eleanor. Otherwise she's a pawn - a helpless lady traded off in marriage, and with no real marketable skills except her skill in managing her estates (which is dependent on her owning them and being unmarried). She has no political power and needs Riannon to protect her.

Other Characters
Some of the remaining cast was a bit simplistic and the interactions weren't always very subtle; most of the males were either brash brutish men or one of the few witty, charming and 'accepting' ones.

Riannon plays the hero and everyone learns she's actually an existing mystery hero, and suddenly almost everyone who reviled her loves her.

Ralph the vile toad was possibly excessively vile (but enjoyably so), however his father's enabling turned him from 'pretty decent/average guy who dotes on his son a bit too much' to 'card carrying villain'.

Women are either bold and intelligent and in charge of their own fate (the Queen, our three main characters), or pale wispy creatures controlled by those around them. The only exception was Riannon's sister, Joan, but we never see her interact with anyone else. Although while she readily accepted Riannon, she also didn't defend her to the men she introduced her to, but withdrew and let the Men of the Family talk.

Romance and Sex:
This is basically what the book is about, and it's done very well. The romance is believable, passionate and respectful (and fraught with various challenges), and at no point do you ever step back and go ' I really want her to be with her?'.

The sex was very good. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone looking for sexy romance. If you've ever started reading a sex scene and thought "oh, and next they're going to...", then - like me, you'll be pleasantly surprised when they don't and do something else. Lots of love and emotion and an inability to keep hands off of each other's respective persons.

Wordiness, Typos, Conversations
Wonderfully functional brief description made the book very easy to read and helped everything flow smoothly along. Conversations where lively and believable. I saw no typos or grammar issues.
The only wordiness was in speech - I think it was a deliberate choice, with Eleanor especially using very loquacious and fancy manner of speech, at least at the start. I'm not sure if this stopped, if she became more casual when she grew closer to Riannon, or if I got used to it, but I only really noticed it in the first part of the book. It did feel a bit as if they should all be 'thee-ing' and 'thou-ing' though!

There were only five real issues for me with this story, two worth covering which may affect your enjoyment, and three nitpicky highly personal ones. These are really the only problems I had, I otherwise loved the book. The fact that I wrote half an essay about them should just indicate that I'm trying to explain properly (I'm a wordy wretch, sometimes), not count against the story.

Major Issue 1:
The ending. Oh the ending.

The ending is the biggest flaw. Riannon swoops in, they escape together, the end. It is strongly implied that they are secure, that everything will follow as she plans, but we don't get to see any of that. We don't even get any makeup sex (or know if or when they'll be jumping into each other's arms. Will they wait for honour's sake, and will Eleanor even want to for a while?). The rest of the book had no such pacing issues - it feels like someone said 'stop at this many words!' or 'we can't fit a file that big, cut off the last bit!'.

It's like watching a race - just because there's a clear winner, you don't just stop watching. You want to see them cross the finish line and hear the cheers. And there's always the niggling doubt that maybe they tripped, or someone got in the way, or they were disqualified, or someone overtook them on a burst of adrenalin. You  don't need to do an extended Return of the King endless ending, but you do need to wrap it up.

And Aveline. Last we saw of her, she'd achieved the first step in her plan for personal advancement and we knew she'd probably succeed in the rest of her plan. But nothing more. Last we saw her, she was thinking she should check on Riannon, to make sure she was still the good little pawn. Which, with Riannon's rescue of Eleanor, she probably wasn't. But we never see Aveline reacting to this, or even finding out.

On the one hand, Aveline's future plans were very longterm and - on the face of it - may never actually affect Riannon and Eleanor again (and the focus was very tightly on those two). The second half of Aveline's story drifted further and further from the lovers, to the point where it was becoming pointless. IF there is a sequel, or this was a much longer book, or time had skipped quite a few years, they could have joined paths again, or at least wrapped matters up.

The crusade was left open too - it probably continued, Riannon probably returned to fight some more, knowing the real history of the crusades it may have been an endless drain... but it 'doesn't matter' to our lovers' story. So there is plenty of room for a sequel - but  can't really see it being a continuation of the current romance, unless we switched to a new character, with Aveline tying the plot together. That would work quite well.

Major Issue 2:
The lack of geographical, historical, theological and political detail became a fairly large issue for me. If you don't like being overburdened with detail, and don't care, really, about anything except that which is affecting the lovers, then this is probably a plus for you. It doesn't detract, really, it's just something I wanted.

To be very clear, I've just finished the fourth book in the A Sword of Ice and Fire series which are among the best books I've every read - certainly one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time - and cover all the angles in depth. I usually go into books looking for that amount of detail and George RR Martin's books are some of the only ones that not only answer all the questions I come up with as I read, but don't bore me to death doing it.

So it's a very high standard that Lady Knight followed, and a possibly unfair one. But in this area, it did fall down. The descriptions were good, but the structure was missing. I was constantly tantalised by wanting to know how big, how many, who, what, when. This may have been deliberate - one constant was that if something affected the three main characters, we learnt about it. But no more than that. I had to deduce, or assume, often coloured by my expectations from other books or from what I thought it was mimicking..

Basically, the setting is an alternate Europe - I'm assuming it's England. it's certainly a medieaval or rennaiassance feudal system, and it strongly recalls the Crusades of the eleventh century onward, although it felt more like the 12th or 13th century ones. The foreign countries could easily be fitted into an old English world view, and there's an "Irland". But I don't know. I don't know how big the world is, how many countries there are, who follows what belief. I just know that there are other countries, that Riannon is well travelled and wordly, that Eleanor is not, but keenly interested.

I know that widows can buy freedom from marriage, to a point, and that girls are basically marriage pawns. They are also apparently heiresses in their own right - at one point I figured they must be the primary inheritors, which is balanced by the way they are freely traded. Half the time, I felt it was drawing on real practices and culture in mediaeval England, but other times I wasn't sure.

The theology - there are four orders, I know from descriptions of praying in a shrine, but we only know anything about two. And the only one we say any magic from (subtle, but enough to take it from 'tiresome religion whose followers are too uneducated to know better' to 'fantasy and paladins that mean something' which matters to a cynical atheist like me) is the Goddess that Aveline follows. This is because all the focus is on that order, and the main characters are women - Riannon has some contact with the (male) warrior order, but we don't see much of it. The fact that the 'infidels' appear to have similar magic to the Goddess makes me wonder if there are rival groups of 'real' Gods, or just various powers, or if magic has to manifest in certain ways. I don't know, and I'd like to.

Another fairly major ... trait? issue? deliberate approach? was that it was wholly restricted to the nobles. Even Riannon, experienced Knight Errant that she is, commands people and has a minor title when we see her. This reflects the fact all the important characters were the nobility, and probably weren't aware themselves of the lowly peasants as people, but it was noticeable.

I think the most jarring bit for me was when Eleanor finds everything at the market to be poor quality and buys nothing - I was left wondering was it because it was simply a collection of peddlers trying to flog cheap goods to the tourney goers? Or was it the enormous gap between Eleanor's incomes and the 'normal' people?

Personal Nitpick 1:
I've just played DragonAge 2 (awesome game, by the way, especially in that you can a) pick your character's gender and b) romance almost all the possible romance characters. So I lesbian-loved both Merrill the elf-girl and Isabella the pirate. Graphics are beautiful but very demanding, though).
One of the optional quest/fighting companions, the only woman you can't romance, is a guard captain named Aveline. She's honourable, blunt and a melee character, and was one of my favourites to fight with. And she's very similar to Riannon - about as far from the Aveline of the book as you can get! And because I'd gotten very into the game, my associations with that Aveline were too strong - I had to try and ignore the name when reading her parts!

Personal Nitpick 2:
Romance isn't really my preferred genre. I much prefer fantasy, scifi and stuff with lots of character driven plot. Lady Knight had great characters, but most of the plot was either within the romance, or fairly external. I kept waiting for the focus to shift away from 'how this affected their love' to look at the wider politics, and provide some context.

To be clear: the characters were generally great, there was nothing obviously inconsistent or jarring, and the plot itself worked (especially the romance). I'm just not used to reading books in which the romance is the whole story!

Personal Nitpick 3:
I discovered that you cadownload the Amazon Kindle program onto your computer - which was how I bought this book. It's easy to use, the font is large and the page size small, so doesn't fill the screen with whiteness, and I have a handy little app called Flux which adjusts the colour and lighting of my monitor at night.

Unfortunately, it has fierce DRM and is tied to one account. So I finished the story, and thought 'Must lend this one to a friend'... and then realised there was no way I could. And this is probably going to stop me downloading books in the future, if I think I might want to share. So major issue for me.  The paperback only costs a couple of dollars more, so if you get free shipping (or it's not too much for you), I'd get that! If you don't care about the format, the digital version is fine.

Lady Knight
Lady Knight
by L-J Baker

In summary?
Buy this. It's fun and interesting and a highly enjoyable chivalrous and romantic tale. I also have a review copy of one of her other books that I've been carrying around, so I'm off to read that now (edit: have now read Adijan and Her Genie and it resolves all and any lingering doubts about Baker's ability to pace plot or fill in background details. Brilliant book, awesome writer).

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