It was with some sadness that I picked up The True Knight. This was the third book of the second trilogy Susan Dexter wrote about Calandra and its surrounds, and the last of her books in my reread (having read the second-to-last book she wrote, Wizard’s Shadow, first, and not having the very last book, Moonlight, to hand yet). I didn’t want to leave this world, or this author – she’s a very hard act to follow (though I did move on to someone who matches her…). The True Knight starts with a terrible scene, in which a king is faced with the consequences of having concurrently married a warrior woman and fallen in love with a sweet lady who had been taken prisoner by his people on a raid. The warrior woman, Melcia, known as the Red Queen for good reason, takes issue with her husband’s mistress and the daughter he has had with her: she forces him to fight her in single combat, defeats him, and bears his head off to take care of the interlopers. The mistress goes to her own death almost gladly, having lost her love – but the daughter is another story …
Some years later, a young man named Titch is trying to make his way in the world following in his dead father’s footsteps: he has his father’s now-elderly horse and sword, and armor garnered from various battles, and big plans to be a great knight. He’s good, and knows it – he’s had no choice but to be good – and knows that if he can just win the right fight in front of the right noble he will earn patronage, and become a True Knight. Having outgrown – and outfought – his neighborhood, he sets out to seek his fortune. In short order he meets Gerein, who appears to be everything Titch aspires to, and who is mounted on the most magnificent black horse. All else aside, Titch wants that horse beyond all reason, and challenges the knight for it … and loses. The two end up unlikely off-and-on companions, and Gerein turns out to be not quite the Knight he appears to be. In trying to do him a misguided good turn, Titch is nearly killed, but is found by Wren, a young apprentice magician who nurses him back to health.
Trying to regain control over his life, Titch actually loses it a little more, and before he knows it is, with Wren, conscripted into the service of the Red Queen. She needs help. The one thing that could bring out the humanity in her is her son, and trying to free him from the terrible curse that has been laid on him scours her of everything but desperate mother. Unfortunately, in her “desperate mother” equates to no one else in the world mattering worth half a damn. She is driving all the magic-users she can lay hands on to help him … or die.
The story uses a classic fairy tale – The Seven Swans – in a way that is purely Susan Dexter, unique and original and flat-out terrific. These are some of my favorite characters in her bibliography, and the book was probably my favorite … I suppose it’s a good thing to (except for Moonlight) quit on a high note. But I really, really wish she hadn’t.