I’ve drifted away from reviewing books over the last couple of years, and I’ve also developed … not an aversion, but a certain wariness towards retellings where I’m too familiar with the source material, as I inevitably end up getting annoyed at them. But when the publicist for Jo Fletcher Books reached out to me about Blackheart Knights, I realised I was going to have to break both of those habits:
“From the acclaimed YA author of The Graces comes the first adult novel – a unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in a London where the knights are celebrities, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money – think Chamelot meets Gotham! Full of magic and secrets, Blackheart Knights is a wonderfully immersive read. It’s dark, it’s sexy and Laure’s expert world-building will have you gripped.“
Was it possible, I thought, that somebody had finally written the weird, queer, knight-focused Arthurian retelling I was craving? One that recognised that the individual knights and their quests were the main draw in many of the medieval stories, not Arthur himself, who is usually more of a background figure? One that did something creative enough, strange enough, new enough to get past my inherent suspicion of Arthurian retellings?
I needed to find out. And when I saw the cover, I needed it even more.
So, I signed up to participate in the social media blast, Jo Fletcher Books generously sent me a proof copy, and here we are. Let’s talk about Blackheart Knights.
First of all, this is an intensely difficult book to review, because I don’t want to spoil anything. While as a chronic re-reader, I’m wary of anything that can be undermined by spoilers — shock reveals can only be a shock once — there are definitely parts of this book where you benefit from going in blind. I want you to have the same experience I did, of dropping the book on the bed after a reveal, swearing loudly to yourself, and feeling like a complete fool for not putting two and two together sooner.
It’s pretty rare that I get completely bamboozled by books, and I have a weird talent for guessing plot twists based on nothing at all; I once guessed at random that a character was another character’s future self travelling back in time, thinking there was no way that could possibly be right, and… turned out to be right. I was mad at myself for spoiling that one, I can tell you.
So when a book does manage to mislead and misdirect me to the point where I don’t figure things out, I’m always as much impressed as I am annoyed at myself — especially if it’s something that, as a medievalist, I really should know. In this regard, Blackheart Knights reminded me of the experience of reading American Gods for the first time, and how angry I was that I hadn’t figured out sooner who Wednesday was, considering I was preparing to study Old Norse at uni…
But is this book the knight-centric book I was expecting or hoping for? Not exactly. Arthur — Artorius Dracones — is still a significant character, and the overall plot/vibes owe more to Malory etc than to Chrétien de Troyes, as often seems to be the case. (Having said that, there were a few deliciously unusual details, such as a reference to Lailoken, which made me very happy.) The stories of the knights are tangled together with the larger narrative, in the way that suits modern storytelling, rather than reflecting the episodic, individualised ways their stories are often presented by medieval authors. Of your classic Round Table knights, only a few appeared, and weren’t always easy to identify because of how Eve played with the naming.
It is, however, the most I’ve enjoyed an Arthurian retelling in a long time.
There are a few reasons for that, but one of the most important is that for a long time, I couldn’t tell what stories it was retelling. There was enough creativity and invention to disguise the source material enough that it never started feeling predictable. In fact, for a while I wondered if it was even retelling any specific story at all, or whether it was more the concept of an Arthurian court that Eve was borrowing, so it caught me out whenever the story circled back to an ‘expected’ element. I never felt like I knew exactly where we were going, which meant I stayed hooked.
It also wasn’t trying to be historically accurate in any way, which should be obvious from the blurb: motorbikes and magic and the media abound. I am, for the most part, very tired of Arthurian retellings which try to be ‘historical’, which generally means setting them in some nebulous early medieval world, stripping out all the weirdness of the original stories and making all the most obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. They’re also rarely actually accurate, particularly in regards to their insistence on removing all the Christian elements of the Arthurian stories. While Blackheart Knights has its own religious system, Christianity also exists, which I found to be an interesting choice; the fact that faith seemed to play a role at all was refreshing, considering how prominent it is in the medieval sources.
And to my delight, Eve also doesn’t make obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. The book is set in a queernorm world — e.g. our heteronormativity and gender roles don’t seem to exist, at least within the present setting. There’s a brief reference to women not always having been permitted to train as knights, but this is long gone, as evidenced by the fact that our main character is Red, a girl training to be a knight. She’s also bisexual, or something similar — there’s no discussion of terminology, but that speaks to a world where labels aren’t needed because sexuality isn’t categorised particularly.
There are also two nonbinary characters who use they/them pronouns. Again, there’s never any discussion of terminology or a forced explanation: they’re just there on the page, using neutral pronouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two they/them characters in a book that wasn’t explicitly about trans stuff, and the fact it was so normalised and never questioned was refreshing. It’s weird how books never feel the need to specify, “Art was a boy”, but often when there’s a nonbinary character, authors feel the need to point this out. But Eve just introduced Garad and Dario with they/them pronouns and never felt the need to shoe-horn in a reason. Most excitingly, Garad is a knight — let the version of me who loves to wave a sword around rejoice!
Throughout the book, the past and present are interwoven: Art becoming King, and the early years of his rule, and Red’s training as a knight. Because I never figured out where the story was going until it got there, I was kept hooked by this dual timeline, trying to work out what we were building up to, and Eve did a masterful job of misleading me and then pulling the rug from under my feet with a reveal that made me question my understanding up until that point. I normally don’t love dual timelines (I’m good at ignoring chapter headings, so I tend to get confused), but these two threads felt distinct enough to minimise any confusion, and it kept the whole thing very compelling. I ended up staying up until 1:15am to finish it, because I had to know where we were going.
The worldbuilding was, as promised, immersive, although that did make the opening of the book a little challenging as I tried to get my head around the world and the unfamiliar terminology. I felt we didn’t necessarily see as much of this world as I’d have liked; I’m not sure if there’s to be a sequel (though based on the ending, there’s a space for one), but if there is, I’d like to see more about how the world works. We have seven kingdoms, one of which is London; another is Kernow, but what are the others? Do they map to their current real-world locations? I could also have used a map of this version of London, but maybe there’s one in the finished version of the book.
That the book is set in London seemed a slightly strange choice. The creative worldbuilding and use of language means it didn’t feel much like our London, and could realistically have been anywhere, so I wondered why Eve hadn’t chosen a place with more obvious Arthurian resonances. Some of the Brittonic-sounding placenames (Cair Lleon) seemed odd transplanted into such a seemingly ‘English’ location. However, the geography was different enough for it not to annoy me the way some Anglicisations of Arthur do, so this was more of a question mark on my part than a flaw.
Relatedly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on linguistically. Not being set in our world, there’s no reason that the names and terminology should follow a logical pattern based on our history, but it was still a little puzzling. There were plenty of Brittonic names and a fair few Gaelic ones too, but the names for types of magic users seemed to be Old English, and Latin, or a version of it, also seems to exist.
This wasn’t a flaw — I actually enjoyed how many different influences there seemed to be, because Arthuriana has never been limited to one country or language; from its Welsh origins it very quickly found a foothold in France, England, and beyond. But it did make it a little more challenging for me to figure out some of the worldbuilding, because I was probably overthinking it and looking for logic where there wasn’t necessarily any. I couldn’t figure out whether this terminology was associated with specific places or people-groups (e.g. was Old English used for ‘godchildren’, those with magical powers, because they’re underground and hidden, compared to the Latin-sounding name of the ruling family?), or if the world of Blackheart Knights was very much a melting pot of cultures, but I’d have liked to have more of an explanation for that, as well as for whether people spoke different languages or whether they’re only reflected in the proper nouns. This is probably just me being a nerd, though.
The blurb above doesn’t quite explain the setup with the knights and their televised fights — it’s for more than fame and money that they fight. They’re basically extremely violent lawyers, fighting to settle disputes (although the knights themselves aren’t supposed to know what the fight’s about, in case they end up throwing the fight or otherwise influencing the outcome). This actually felt pretty medieval to me — there are a lot of stories where a knight fights on behalf of a maiden in travails, and of course wins, because he’s in the right and because he’s the coolest. Having them belong to a ‘stable’ and be hired out to particular claimants was less medieval, since the procedure in medieval texts seems to be ‘find knight in the middle of nowhere, possibly in need of rescuing himself, and ask him to help you, calling in a favour if you have to’, but that suited the setting and gave it a modern, commercialised twist.
Having said that, this setup really only provided the background to the main characters’ machinations; I felt perhaps it could have been more central. I was kind of hoping that two knights who cared about each other would end up fighting, like Yvain and Gawain at the end of The Knight of the Lion, but I think I have a type when it comes to making friends fight each other. But it was only after I finished the book that I felt the lack of more development of that concept, not while reading it, and I think it’s a symptom of the fact that the worldbuilding here felt a lot bigger than one book alone, so I’ll be intrigued to know if there’s a sequel, and if so, where the plot might go next…
I’ll tell you nothing more about the story itself, because I really do think this is a book that rewards reading without foreknowledge. This means I can’t show off my Arthurian expertise or explain any of the references, but since some of them took me until the final chapters to get, I feel like I’ve surrendered my authority in that regard! So I’ll just tell you that for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which kept me up far too late at night. Finally, an Arthurian retelling that didn’t annoy me — can it be true? (There have been others, but not recently, and several major disappointments in between…)
I still await my Chrétien-esque knights-centric Arthurian novel, ideally featuring Yvain and his lion, but I had a lot of fun being bamboozled and misled by Laure Eve in the meantime. And while I’m not sure anything will quite compare to the experience of reading it for the first time, I look forward to rereading one day and spotting all the clues I missed this time around.
So this medievalist’s judgment? Fun! With some intriguing references that’ll make you feel clever when you spot them, but enough creative divergences from the source material to stop it becoming predictable.
I’d love to give you my medievalist’s opinion on other retellings, Arthurian or otherwise, so please drop suggestions in the comments. And if Blackheart Knights sounds up your street, you can find it on Amazon UK (affiliate link) or on Bookshop.org (normal link) — or of course at your local bookshop!
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