The Wizard Knight
by Gene Wolfe
New York : Tor, 2004
by Colleen R. Cahill
Knights and wizards are main stays of medieval fantasy, so much so that you almost cannot have one without the other. The knight in armor, man of deeds and honor seems in contrast to the mysterious wizard whose goals are often shadowed. Gene Wolfe takes both these roles and combines them in one character, giving us The Wizard Knight duet, two volumes that bring the wonder of magic and the thrill of heroic fiction together in a way that is familiar, but also unique, with a style that only Gene Wolfe can provide
The story is told as a letter to Ben from a younger brother who disappeared from their mountain cabin years before. Kidnaped by flying beings, the brother meets a strange old woman who dubs him Able of the High Heart, then sends him off with a few mysterious words and a bow. Able wanders though a land of villages and scattered farms, all under a dark threat of marauding giants. In the forest, he meets and falls in love with Dirsi, Queen of the Moss Aelfs, who transforms him physically into an adult man, although he is still a boy inside. Able now dreams of becoming a knight and never having to leave her side. It is a quest, one that will take him to many realms, and as he seeks to make himself worthy of his Queen, he also takes on many other tasks and promises, some of which could cost him his life or even his chance at happiness.
This all sounds like a standard quest novel, but don’t be fooled. Able is a boy in a man’s body, and his innocence blends with his strong sense of justice to make a very human warrior: unlike some other knights, Able is not one because of his weapons or because his father was noble, but because of what is in his heart. Knights will have followers, and so with Able, but many of his are unusual, such as the sailor Pouk Badeye or Gylf, a dog from another realm who can talk when it suits him. Just as Able is not a cardboard character, the world he stumbles into is not the same old fantasy fare; Aelfs are more complex than most elves, being both loved and feared by humans. The two fire Aelfs who become Able’s companions are definitely a mix of good and evil and it is hard to tell if they are friends, foes or just out to explore the worlds.
The story is a mix of medieval epic, Norse myth and pure Gene Wolfe. One easily recognizes the one-eyed Valfather as Odin, realizes the Aelf are elves and King Arnthor of Celidon certainly reminds me of Arthur of Camelot, but these are echoes, inspirations that have become stronger, darker and even though we know them, more mysterious than the originals.
This is an epic fantasy for adult readers, bringing a rich plot and complicated characters to a deep theme of honor and love, all crafted by a master wordsmith. If you want more than just swords and sorcery, The Wizard Knight series is just what you need.