Review: The Ill-Made Knight – Christian Cameron

The Ill-masde Knight Christian CameronSeries: Chivalry 1

My version: Hardback
Genre: Historical Fiction Chivalry
Orion Books (Hachette)
First published: 2013

From the cover:

It was a cold brand that did not make him cry out or leave him scarred – but it marked him as a thief nevertheless, and thus William Gold’s dreams of becoming a knight were stolen from him. So when Edward, the Black Prince, raised an army bound for France, William could only join its ranks as the lowest of the low – a cook’s boy.

In France, however, even a cook’s boy gets to fight, and when a French army corners the English a few miles south-west of Poitiers, William finds himself in the heart of the epic battle – culminating in a terrifying confrontation with the greatest knight of the age, the peerless killing machine, Geoffrey de Charny.

With the beginnings of a reputation for valour, William’s ambitions are rekindled. But in the aftermath of the battle, as rapacious English mercenaries plunder a country already ravaged by plague, and the peasantry take violent revenge against the French knights who have failed to protect them, can chivalry be any more than a boyish fantasy?

William Gold still dreams of being a knight, but in this savage new world of intrigue, betrayal and greed, first he must learn how to survive.

The story, what there is, is basically a tour around France and down that way, in the 14th Century. When, as I’ve mentioned before, the days were filled with knights. William Gold is having a piss-up in a tavern, and, in the first of many similarities with Geoffrey Chaucer we encounter at various times in this book, he gets persuaded to tell his comrades a tale. Of his life.

The Ill-Made Knight revolves around Gold’s early life, and his progression from basically being a street urchin who is handy with his fists, to becoming, maybe, a knight himself. Working his way up the 14th Century social ladder, Gold more or less moves from on fight to another, one disappointment to another, as he always seems to be just two steps behind bad luck. If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. Some of the talk early on in his career, where he had a lot of ambition but no money and no equipment and had to basically gather what articles of clothing and armour from the dead and dying he has bested in battle, reminded me of the situation some parts of the Russian army were in in the Second World War. They were sent into battle without the proper clothes and many times without firearms, and had to scavenge what they could from the dead and dying on either sides. Imagine that. Some things never change, eh?

And speaking of sides, if Gold states that he’s sometimes a little confused about which side he’s on, who he’s supposed to be fighting for, or against – spare a thought for the poor reader. We have absolutely no idea. Well, I didn’t for long periods of the book. Mostly he was for (or was it against?) the French, though he spoke French, didn’t he? Though he was best buddies, some of the time anyway, with Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote Canterbury Tales in English, so maybe he was English? But he did seem to switch sides once or twice. Though it’s not like anything was ordered down there, back then. Every group of men out for themselves, and allied themselves with whoever looked most like ‘winning.’ Chaucer doesn’t come out of The Ill-Made Knight too well. A real arrogant, elitist bastard, I was thinking most of the time, though, if I remember my school book-learnin’ right, Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, does have some similarities with Camerons Ill-Made Knight‘s tale. In the latter 14th Century, populists were questioning the nature of the class structure – “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was gentleman?” They were casting doubt on gentlemen’s right to see themselves as better than ‘commoners’ (and the Peasants’ Revolt wasn’t that far away, was it?) William Gold highlights this, calling his audience Gentlemen, or just Gentles, many times throughout the book. Chaucer’s Knight can be seen as the perfect example of what the ruling class produced and called Knights – violent snobs, who saw the classes lower than them, as ripe for, or only, there for them to exploit. And rich. You had to be to afford all the armour and clothing, and manners. A Knight is thought to have been worth between £300 and £1,000 back then, somewhere between £120,000 and £400,000 in today’s money. In The Ill-Found Knight, Gold comes from the exploited end of society, but desperately wants to be at the other end of the exploitation, though with his background, he wouldn’t want to indulge. For him, the noble ideals of Chivalry are what he sees as defining a Knight. A knight is knightly, as he sees it, by what a knight should do. What he finds in reality, of course, is more like Chaucer was to write about. What Gold realises, maybe, is that you don’t only become chivalrous when you become a Knight and therefore are in that rarified strata of 14th Century society. Chivalric behaviour is just as often, if not mostly more so, found lower down the scale as well. It’s not new, but still interesting. How much of that is purely a concept seen though 21st Century eyes, and pasted on a 14th Century figure, I can’t say.

If you’ve read any Chaucer, you’ll also recognise the themes raised here of the (various) knights supposedly fighting for their people, the peasants, though killing them off like flies at every opportunity. The various armies are as locusts, stripping the countryside of everything – another similarity to World War II, where Germany went over eastern Europe, into Russia, Russia was forced to retreat and employed a scorched earth policy, then Germany was forced to retreat backwards again, and employed a scorched earth policy, Russia overran the eastern countries again, and removed everything that wasn’t nailed down. The poor people, the peasants, caught in the middle time after time.

Mr Cameron is, I understand, big on the re-enactment front. And he really wants us to know what he’s learned about knights of the time. Some of the insights and attention to detail are, I’ll admit, well done, well sneaked in. The weight of the armour, and therefore how strong they must have been at the time, the amount of mud, they climbing on the underside of the ladders while scaling a wall. But, whilst not quite in the “you haven’t done your homework, have you boy? Every other word needs explaining, does it boy?!” class of Prof Harry Sidebottom, it can be wearisome. You can see it in the situations, as here, where the character narrating comes to a word, or the name of an item of clothing, or armour, whose name would have been either common enough knowledge at the time, or if not by the general populace – the serf in the street – then certainly by the people the narrator, as here, is relating their story to. In short, this audience of 13-whatever would have known exactly what he was talking about, but we wouldn’t. So we get an explanation. Other authors do it better. C.R. May, Angus Donald (etc) are all in the no explanation needed camp and, in my opinion, the better for it.

He does, however, stray away from the age of Chaucer (probably better for the sales figures to do that), and remember that this is supposed to be a bestselling Historical Fiction book, and employs many of the cliches of the Hist Fic age too. There is a spray of scarlet, a couple of almost imperceptible nods, a sword that does become like a living thing. There are way too many raised eyebrows as well. So much so that it at times gives the last Anthony Riches’ one I read a run for its money. Though CC needs to raise his pursed lips count significantly to compete properly in the wider Hist Fic arena, as there are only two that I can remember. A couple of the similes stopped me in my tracks as well. As in “Erm, Chris; did they know of such things at that time? Fist-sized rocks “left by the glaciers” was the best of them. Obviously Anthony Riches’ editor freelancing for a section or two.

When she/he wasn’t freelancing, the rest of the book is entertaining enough, though staying well outside ‘classic’ areas. There’s plenty going on, but making head or tail of it, is, as I’ve said, just as difficult for us as it was for William Gold. I won’t say I was disappointed, but I did expect more from it than it ended up delivering.

You can buy An Ill-Made Knight from The Book Depository

*The image at the top of the page, I’ve nicked from the series Knightfall


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