Scratching that Arthurian Itch: The Winter Knight by Jes Battis

I have a soft spot for Arthurian legend. When I was sixteen I fell deeply in love with The Mists of Avalon, and my primary life goal at that time was to be a priestess of Avalon. Years later, I learned about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s horrific abuse, and realized that in retrospect, there are certainly distressing threads that can be picked out of the text itself. With sadness, I put my copy of The Mists of Avalon in the giveaway pile. But by then my horizons had broadened considerably, and my reading life was rich with stories, myths, and legends diverse with different people and perspectives. You know, not just stories about a bunch of old white dudes and the women who had the misfortune to love them.

All that said, when The Winter Knight by Jes Battis came to my attention this spring, that long-buried priestess of Avalon inside me sat up and took notice. ECW Press promised that “Arthurian legends are reborn in this upbeat queer urban fantasy with a mystery at its heart.” Even without the Arthurian legend part, this descriptor ticked all my boxes.

I loved this book. It gave me back my Arthurian legends, but this time with queer, trans, neurodivergent, and disabled characters at the centre. It added in a murder mystery to boot! And, above all, it told its story in stunning, crystalline, and powerful prose. Jes Battis is a poet as well as a fiction writer, and it shows.

The Winter Knight is more of a remix than a retelling. Its characters are not reenacting the old stories. Instead, they are reincarnations of the figures from legend, doing their best to muddle along in daily modern life like the rest of us, albeit with an otherworldly connection to their past lives and to each other.

He saw himself in a slash of ice, armored, on horseback. In a gown, writing by firelight. Sitting on a dais, next to beautiful, dangerous people. Staring into a mirror that crossed centuries. Swimming in dark water. Writing, fighting, kissing, laughing, fucking, pleading, promising, even as it all slipped away.”

Chapter 12 (Wayne)

In the book’s setting of modern-day Vancouver we find both Arthurian myths and Norse ones. Watching over the reincarnated knights are the reincarnated Valkyries, whose job it is to wrangle these myths when they start to get out of control. There are runesmiths in this story, as well as the Norns (the three women deities who shape fate and who, in this tale, run a hotel in Gastown), further linking Nordic and Celtic mythologies.

Hildie and Wayne are the protagonists, and the chapters alternate their POVs. Hildie is one of the Valkyries, beleaguered by both an impossible job and an overbearing mother. Wayne is the reincarnation of Sir Gawain, and is just now, at age nineteen, tentatively taking steps into living and understanding his myth.

When university provost Mo Penley (the reincarnation of Mordred) is found beheaded at the dean of arts’ soiree (the dean of arts is, btw, Morgan le Fay), Hildie sets in motion an investigation that will unearth much more than she bargained for.

Wayne, meanwhile, is undertaking the Sisyphean task of registering at the university for disability accommodation; at the same time he is learning to trust himself both as a knight and as a person who does not fit into neat categories. Both of these things bring him into contact with Bert, who is the reincarnation of Bertilak, The Green Knight. Inevitably, romance starts to bloom.

But is it inevitable? There are a lot of threads in this tapestry, and one of them is the play between fate and choice. Hildie fights a constant battle not to repeat her mother’s bad choices, and to allow herself to take the risks required to command her own life. Wayne is searching for the “questing beast,” a foe that he keeps seeing in dreams and sensing around him, but everyone tells him this beast exists only within oneself. In any other kind of story this kind of metaphor might be heavy-handed, but here in the midst of myths and legends, it fits nicely.

The Winter Knight also treads purposefully but deftly on topics ranging from Vancouver’s colonial past and present, to the rising cost of living, to the experiences of women living in the city. With a sly wit and an observant eye, these details root the story firmly in the present.

Occasionally, she’d feel eyes on her, a man on the SkyTrain, judging her. But whatever he felt was his business. Also, she could manifest a spear from thin air, so men’s opinions weren’t really her problem.”

— Chapter 19 (Hildie)

For fans of urban fantasy and ancient legends alike, The Winter Knight is a rare blend — a fun read and a beautiful one, too. It’s full of mythical quests, but it’s driven by its sensitively drawn and complex characters. It’s full of metal forges and runes, but it’s also full of student services and public transit. In short, it’s a joy.

Especially if you’re like me and you love a little Arthurian legend, I can’t recommend it enough.

For a moment, he imagined the glass condos as Douglas fir trees, which had towered over everything before settlers cut them down. Bert was guiding him through a forest grove that smelled of moss and mushrooms and unraveling leaves. They knew where they were going because they’d been there countless times, under different skies.”

— Chapter 14 (Wayne)

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