The word eôel meant home turf. People trust home. Through years of investigation, her grandmother had learned that what people told you depended on where you talked to them. Lies for every space, but occasionally a truth snuck its way in.”
― Jes Battis, The Winter Knight
When she had interviewed him, she’d traced a discreet rune on his phone case. It was sketchy magic, but it should have given her access to the phone’s GPS. The problem was that it wasn’t working. His location kept spinning, like when you call an Uber and it’s suddenly trapped in another dimension.”
― Jes Battis, The Winter Knight
What if knights, valkyries, elves, kelpies, rune smiths (sort of like spell casters) and The Fates all knew each other and coexisted in the modern day city of Vancouver, British Columbia? This is the premise for The Winter Knight, in which Valkyries are the peacekeepers, knights are whatever they want to be, but somehow ended up teaching medieval studies or translating ancient texts at the local university. The Fates spin, measure, and cut mortals’ lives from the dark recesses of a decrepit hotel that both exists and does not exist somewhere in Vancouver’s Gastown district. King Arther is imprisoned for some undisclosed crime, and no one can find Lancelot.
In this world, knights die and are reborn. In each life, they relive their stories, unable to change their paths. Guinevere is always with Arthur, and then with Lancelot. Morgan le Fey is always present, and her alliances are never clear. No matter what they do, no matter what century they are born into, their lives follow the same general course. Everyone knows these histories, and some take risks in the hope that they are able to shape their particular thread into something new.
The book opens with a murder, and everyone is a suspect. Hildie is on the case, as she was the valkyrie attending the party where the murder happened. Wayne, his aunt Vera, Morgan (Morgana), and her assistant Bert, are all suspects in the violent and bloody death of Mo Penley (Mordred).
From here, we follow Hildie, as she tries to find out who killed Mo. Her mother, Grace – head of the Valkyries – only grants Hildie the information she thinks she needs. Hildie is in a constant war between what she wants from her mother (validation, acceptance, trust, and encouragement) and what she has to do to convince herself she is on the right path regarding the investigation.
The book switches between Hildie’s POV as she questions suspects and trades theories with The Fates, who function as a sort of supernatural CSI unit. The other POV comes from Wayne, a knight in name only. He is nineteen and has more pressing issues, such as getting the paperwork necessary for medical accommodations for his university classes and his weekly mandated therapy session. Diagnosed with autism from an early age, we go along with Wayne and see through his eyes how he experiences events in his daily life and as a witness to Mo’s murder. Wayne is old enough to know some of the history of Camelot, but he is still naive to the dangers these forces hold.
Urban fantasy is one of my favorite, FAVORITE, genres. I also love Vancouver. The idea that legends live and work, fight and fuck, and generally go about living their lives in tiny apartments and secret clubs with elven bartenders is fascinating to me.
I am much more interested in Wayne’s story than Hildie’s. Hildie reminds me a bit of Alex from Ninth House, mainly because of the crushing self-doubt, self-sabotaging nature, and fierce and, at times, self-destructive love. Her mother, lead valkyrie, doesn’t trust her and I understand why. Hildie is so wrapped up in proving her mother wrong, or proving something to her, that she runs directly into danger just so she can say that she got there first. To me, Wayne is the one with the clearest character arc, and the one with the most interesting myth.
Also, the knights’ names in contemporary culture crack me up. Wayne for “Gawain” makes sense. It took me far too long to figure out where Vera’s name came from.
I think the second book is where this story will hit its stride. I assume there will be a second book as this book sets us up to follow Wayne and Kai (Wayne’s best friend and a powerful rune smith) on their adventures.
The Winter Knight has so much going for it. It ticks all of my boxes. But there are so many characters! It felt like we got new characters and new motives in each chapter, and these rarely led anywhere! Why did Wayne’s mother leave? Everyone is afraid of the ylvs (elves) but they never do anything scary!
On another very positive note, I think there is perhaps only one traditionally heteronormative relationship in this entire book. There is a queer, neurodivergent hero. There is a power throuple. There is ace representation. There is a trans character for whom being trans is not her primary, defining characteristic. There is a non-binary character. One character, who is older than time itself, has “a very broad dating pool, which included ghosts, elemental forces, and, once, a pansexual quasar.”
I’m here for it. I love it. I just need fewer characters (knights) with Pokemon-like charge moves and more time with Wayne and Kai, as they continue on their paths of discovery.