The Last Knight
For fans who yearn for a medieval book in which the characters do historically accurate things like believe in God, Candice Proctor’s The Last Knight could be the answer to a prayer. In a refreshing change of pace, heroine Attica d’Alerion seems to be a product of her times rather than a transplanted Valley girl. She generally behaves herself, believes in God, and is resigned to the future her father has planned for her: marriage to a 14-year-old viscount nicknamed Fulk the Fat.
Attica accepts her fate until a dying French courtier gives information that could mean trouble for King Henry II and Attica’s beloved brother Stephen. Upon receiving this news, Attica leaves Fulk’s household dressed as a boy. She immediately runs into trouble and Damion de Jarnac, in that order. From there we have a road romance with a pretty standard girl-in-disguise plot, a pretty standard chase plot, a pretty standard hero-tormented-by-his-past plot, and finally a story of moral ambiguity and palace intrigue which is better than pretty standard.
The book seems well-researched, and the author presents the sights, sounds, and smells of the time in a way that is convincing but not overpowering. The backdrop for the action is the tension between Henry II, Henry’s sons Richard and John, and King Philip of France. Even I, who am woefully ignorant of history, know that this was a conflicted time with no clear good guys and bad guys. The complex situation is put to good use: moral ambiguity is meant to be a driving theme in the book, and once it finally gets into full swing the book is a real page-turner.
Attica begins with fairly rigid beliefs and loyalties which are gradually challenged as the action progresses. Each conflict she encounters becomes more personal and more ambiguous. It’s interesting to watch her attitudes evolve. Damion is haunted by the aftermath of his own inflexible moral code. This tormented past, we’re told, has turned Damion ruthless, ambitious, and hard; we mostly have to take this on faith since in Attica’s hands Damion almost immediately turns into a puddytat, albeit a consistently lethal one. Meanwhile Attica comes to relish her newfound freedoms and has difficulty subjugating her needs to her family after experiencing another way of life.
The villains are better-drawn than most and have interesting backstories. Unfortunately, little is done with their promising beginnings – they’re relatively nonthreatening and inept, and finish the story much duller than they began. This is a pity, because in an interesting twist, the villains are given many traits we would find admirable today, such as modern aesthetic taste and flexible, unconventional thought. In another book, with minor revisions, they could be the heroes and Attica and Damion could be the baddies. For me, the villains began so sympathetically that I might have enjoyed the book more if they were ultimately presented more evenhandedly. In the moral climate of the times, they could have been decent people who happened to choose another side. Instead, the deck is loaded against them: they resort to torture and carnage, and worse, they’re mostly unattractive, a trait that substitutes for characterization a few times too often.
On the whole, I enjoyed the moral complexities but wish that they had been even more challenging. I also would have liked to get off the road and on to the juicy court-intrigue stuff a little sooner. The book is never less than a solid read, however. Readers who enjoy a strong and accurate medieval flavor and characters who are clearly shaped by their times would do well to give this book a try and watch for future offerings from this author.