Sleepless Knights by Mark H. Williams

Sleepless KnightsAt the beginning of another MythCon, this one in Colorado Springs–where I am now, giving a presentation–it is fitting to review the book of the first MythConer with whom I ever struck up a conversation. This is one of the only cases where I knew the author before I knew he was an author. I found him waiting in line to be registered at the desk and we started to talk.

“Mock,” he told me his name was, but then I realized he had an accent, that his name was “Mark.” He too was reading through John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet at the time and I thought I was one of the only people in the world to be reading it. We struck up a rapport.

‘Mock,’ incidentally, is more or less what he does to the Arthurian tradition in Sleepless Knights, a novel shortlisted for the 2014 Mythopoeic Prize for Adult Fiction. Last MythCon, it went up against Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Land and the winner, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (which, also incidentally, I have just heard recommended as an audiobook by Mary Robinette Kowal on the Writing Excuses podcast). Mark is also a playwright and scriptwriter, having written for the Horrible Histories series–and traces of that series’s humour winds up in Sleepless Knights. I still have my old copy of Horrible Canadian History on a shelf downstairs.

If Sleepless Knights had been nominated for this year, I like to think it might have had a better chance of winning, since the MythCon theme this year is on the Arthurian Mythos. A review now, during the conference, is certainly a propos

Toby Whithouse, a writer for Doctor Who and Being Human, calls Sleepless Knights “a cracking good read” and his British jargon accurately describes the book’s Monty Pythonesque humour. It is a unique mixture of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day–a very British but wholly unconventional pairing.

Lucas is King Arthur’s butler. He has served the Master with absolute devotion for thousands of years into the modern era, when one Ritual Day, Arthur vanishes to unknown parts. It is fundamental that Lucas rally the team and keep the Knights of the Round Table together. But since the glory days of Camelot, Sir Kay has become a book-hoarding murderer, Sir Lancelot has become an inspirational speaker, and Sir Pellinore is a crazed and delusioned hunter after the mysterious Questing Beast. Soon the only thing that can save them is Merlin himself.

But when they find the place in Wales where Merlin is said to lie in waiting, they unwittingly open a path to the Otherworld, unleashing a mass destructive Apocalypse that only the knights have a clue how to fend off. But as the modern era begins to grow uncomfortably aware of the existence of King Arthur, it becomes Lucas’s responsibility to ensure his Master’s safety and the integrity of the Round Table.

Sleepless Knights also contains a series of flashback chapters to the glory days of Camelot in which we see Lucas in his element, directing kitchen staff during a busy festival. How does a butler assist and provide for the guests with minimal intrusion? How does a butler organize the seating around the Round Table, especially when one of the knights, Sir Mordred, is destined to betray Arthur? There are passages where Mark successfully captures the sang froid of Kazuo Ishiguro’s butler Mr. Stevens, who at one point in Remains of the Day expresses admiration for the ability to remain calm and professional even if a tiger takes up residence under the dinner table. The difference with Sir Lucas is that he is slightly less repressed and has to deal not with tigers, but werewolves. Mark provides a fresh angle on Arthurian legend seen from the perspective of a servant. It is not so long before Sir Lucas must venture on a quest of his own.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well I enjoyed Sleepless Knights. One thing Mark did well and that I wanted a lot more of was Lucas’s sang froid attitude. That voice was strong in the beginning chapters, but the Apocalypse, for obvious reasons, provides only a few opportunities for exhibiting calm orderliness under Otherworldly duress. The only resistance I encountered in reading it was, since I read it nightly chapter by chapter, I had some difficulty picking up the thread of adventure after the day caused me to forget what was happening right before I put the book down. Some chapters end after suddenly introducing a wholly new situation–Sleepless Knights is, after all, a wild, cartoony, dragonback ride. That’s part of what makes it funny and I was happy to trust in the author through several out-of-nowhere surprises, which were eventually explained. The good thing is that these defects simply act as motivation to binge-read Sleepless Knights all the way through.

Mark confided to me that there is, actually, some textual/historical evidence for the existence of Sir Lucas in Arthurian legend. That satisfies the scholar in me. I suspect the reference might be to The Chronicles of Godfrey of Wales, the source text to which he appears, by his own admission, to have consulted. Sleepless Knights is a great example of a how a lost detail in a tale can be exploded into the concept for a whole novel.

 

If you appreciate a laugh and a wacky adventure, I certainly recommend Sleepless Knights. Order the book from the Atomic Fez website and get it as a nice present in the mail. These Canadian publishers specialize in ‘eclectic, genre-busting fiction.’ Support them! Support small presses!

Mark H Williams, author of Sleepless Knights. Photo taken from back cover.
Mark H Williams, author of Sleepless Knights. Photo taken from back cover.
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Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

20150722_111003-1Does magic exist in the contemporary world? Charles de Lint’s mythic fiction brings supernatural beings into the context of the everyday and Forests of the Heart explores the contact between ordinary people and what he calls Mystery.

Bettina and Adelita are sisters, both partly Mexican, partly Indios, and raised by their grandmother to see la époco del mito, the time of myth. However, as they grow older, Adelita puts the childish stories away, while Bettina becomes trained by her grandmother to become a skilled curandera, or healer. After her grandmother disappears, she comes up north to Newford, the imaginary setting of many Charles de Lint’s novels and short stories, and finds work as a model for a high-end artist’s retreat.

Meanwhile in Newford the folk/Celtic music scene that de Lint writes about so well is thriving even as an especially frigid winter threatens to upset the normalcy of the city. Miki and Donal are sister and brother, a musician and artist, who came years ago to Newford from an abusive family background in Ireland. Hunter, a man who stands out somewhat because he has no artistic leanings at all, owns Gypsy Records, a music record store that forms a hub for local musicians. De Lint provides copious details about the ins and outs of running such a store, likely because he has had experience running his own store. The author’s talent as a folk musician likewise brings an irresistible spark of life to his depictions of the musical communities of Newford.

But it is not into this community that serves as our introduction to Newford. At first we see Ellie, a sculptor, at work with the city’s Angel network, which helps out the homeless. Work is especially needed now that the weather is getting steadily worse. Our first impression of her comes from her heroic act of saving a homeless man choking to death on his own vomit, by giving him a most unpleasant mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her companion on these outings with the Angel relief van is Tommy, a young Native American whose many aunts seem, to Ellie, to be mythical characters than real women.

When Ellie meets a mysterious man, who may also be a woman, on the streets that night who gives her a business card with the name Musgrave Wood upon it, she feels the first inkling of destiny beckoning to her. Is it a sculptor’s contract or something weirder?

Meanwhile at the Irish pub, Miki, Donal, Hunter, and Ellie grow suspicious about a group of dark strangers who sit in the back of the room to hear the Irish reels. Donal claims that they are hard men, made bitter by years of drunken Irish angst, and that it is better you don’t look at them for too long lest they try to make you their friend–an honour conferred by a punch to the guts. The weird thing is that Bettina, across town, can see them too, standing without winter clothing in the cold snow smoking just outside her window. And she grows steadily more convinced that they derive from the same magic world her grandmother showed to her.

It turns out these dark men are none other than the Gentry, exiled Irish spirits who wander homeless in the city. And they want their revenge against the native manitous, or Mysteries, the rightful spiritual guardians of North America. Their plot to assert dominance over the Mysteries will cause much destruction and draw all of de Lint’s characters into a test against the destructive potential that lies in the bitterness and darkness that all human beings carry deep inside of them.

Although this is not a new novel by Charles de Lint, it is more recent than his classic work Moonheart, a product of the 1980s. I strongly suspect the winter storm was inspired by the ’98 Ice Storm, a turn-of-the-century ordeal that blew out the power in hundreds of cities across the eastern seaboard and is still etched clearly in my memory. The conflict of the musicians/artists against the dark forces of the Gentry gains something of the air of the Fisher King myth, where the salvation of the land itself and its fertility is at stake. What’s so great about this is everyone over a certain age can remember this Ice Storm and feel that much closer to the myth. That’s part of the payoff of setting fantasy novels in the here-and-now.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Quintessence by David Walton

QuintessenceJohn Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.

Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.

Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.

Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.

Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.

Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.

What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.

Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.