There is an especially good feeling about writing the third book in a trilogy. Confession: I’ve only done it once before, with my Elsie Street series.
But a few days ago, I finished up the third book in the Knight’s Tale series. It is called The Knight’s Return, and it begins in April of 1275.
The novel ultimately takes Will and Stephen, young Eleanor, and Amaury de Montfort from their peaceful refuge in France to a ship bound for England, where fate catches up with them in the Bristol Channel (then called the Severn Sea).
Instead of a peaceful homecoming, Will and Stephen must instead navigate court life at Windsor Castle, where they are essentially prisoners. (In real life, Eleanor de Montfort was held at Windsor for three years before she was allowed to marry her Welsh prince, Llywelyn, and go on to her own short, tragic future.)
The novel takes Will into what was then considered middle age. He is thirty-six when the book ends, in 1282, and The Knight’s Return has more bisexual content than the previous novels as well. Will is also forced to fight in Edward I’s Welsh war of 1277, an embittering and eye-opening experience for him.
However, I’m glad to say that Will does take Wilecok‘s advice to “trust Stephen… in the end.”
This recent 5-star review on Amazon really hits home:
“The Knight’s Return is a thoroughly compelling story that rings with emotional truth and historical accuracy. I can’t imagine a more perfect conclusion for this outstanding series.
Ten years have passed. Simon is dead, and Will, Stephen, the aging Lady Eleanor and Wilecock are living in Montargis, in France. Young Eleanor, the great-granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is now 17 and on the verge of womanhood. Suddenly, Stephen announces he is leaving to study as an apothecary in Italy, even as both Lady Eleanor and Wilecok take a turn for the worse. Will is left feeling isolated but also confused as he realizes he’s attracted to young Eleanor. But soon Will, Stephen, and Eleanor will all need to contend with historical forces changing their lives as well as personal loss as they leave the safety of Montargis while a new English King plots against a rebellious Wales.
It’s interesting to have read this and Alex di Campi’s The Scottish Boy within a few week’s of each other. Di Campi’s book occurs during the period right after when West’s “The Knight’s Tale” books take place. West’s series deals with the Bishop’s War and the English war against the Welsh, while Di Campi’s book deals with the English war against the Scots. Both authors have done their historical research, though Di Campi’s writing puts story and characters first and history second. West’s books feel much more embedded in history, and it’s a delight to encounter 13th century words and facts in her writing, from the details she provides about locations and conflicts to her inclusion of things such as fewterers (keepers of dogs), leather tankards and Lady Day in her narrative.
The author is a careful, keen observer of inner life, of our emotional worlds and how our emotional wiring is vastly different from one person to the next. In this third novel, Will and Stephen have been emotionally and physically involved with one another nearly twenty years. While their love for each other has been a constant, it’s also ebbed and flowed, taking on different shapes and textures as they’ve grown as individuals and been forced to respond to the greater tides of history. Both have explored relationships with others, men and women, and have experienced their sexual attraction to each turn from passionate to perfunctory. Yet their bond, a deep, intimate connection regardless of however else it can be described, persists.
Throughout the trilogy, Will has found himself torn and divided in his desires, his passions, and his loyalties, and in The Knight’s Return he finds himself at the crossroads of desiring both Stephen and two of the women in his life. Moreover, he finds himself the object of desire for an older, significantly more powerful man. In these relations, despite being so often torn between others, we’re reminded that he sees being a man as something essential, the sine qua non of which is that a man is never penetrated or receptive. Will seems haunted in this last book, though he’s unsure exactly by what and seems to experience it as a lack, as something missing in his life. It’s as if he’s lived his life catching glimpses of himself and his manhood in a mirror, first in relation to this person and then in relation to another, but what does he look like on his own? His old friend Wilecock seems to be the closest model he has for seeing himself, but he’s still looking for a sense of solidity on his own terms as the world, the old Countess, Wilecock, and even Stephen all become unstable and fleeting.
So, while the genre this series fits into might be magic realism given Stephen’s ability to see the future, the author, Gabriella West, is a gritty psychological realist. She seems to imbue Will with a kind of latent idealism, and he measures himself against vaguely grasped gender and emotional ideals – and, in his estimation, he often comes up wanting. Stephen is a stoic, resigned to enduring futures which he can see but rarely influence. More than once in the series, he finds himself having to risk giving Will up in the hope that his visions will play out in a way that brings Will back to him. He also rides a fine line between manipulating Will and honoring his freedom of choice.
Another author might have given Will or Stephen a more solid psychology, say, by giving one of them an unwavering loyalty or sense of direction or a boundless faith, to ease the troubled waters that West stirs up in these emotionally honest, memorable and beautiful novels. While that might make for a more feel-good story, it would also make these books less compelling, less authentic in mood, tone, and the reality of inner life. An actor friend of mine, who is also a former National Storyteller of the Year, has often said that what he does is “living or responding honestly to imagined circumstances.” Will and Stephen’s story is vibrant and memorable, living inside me as a treasured experience, precisely because West is that paradox we hold dear as a literary aesthetic: an honest storyteller.”