Knight's Dawn by Kim Hunter
Hardcover - 374 pages (1 February, 2001) Orbit; ISBN: 1841490318
Review by John Berlyne
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Orbit brings us a brand new home grown fantasy series in the form of Kim Hunter's debut novel Knight's Dawn. The book forms the first installment in The Red Pavilions but whether this is to be a trilogy or a longer running saga is unclear from the publicity material.

Knight's Dawn opens very strongly. An injured knight comes to on an unfamiliar hillside. He has clearly been in battle but on questioning a local huntsman he learns there has been no battle here in over a century. With no knowledge of who or where he is, the knight sets off with the hunter to the city of Zamerkand. Here his task will be one of survival as well as searching for some clues to his identity. This notion of the stranger in the strange land is by no means original but - for the early part of this novel at least - Hunter explores this premise intelligently and keeps the reader interested.

The knight - with no knowledge of himself other than his vocation - adopts the name "Soldier" and soon proves himself a man of grit and determination. Zamerkand is no easy place fro a stranger. In many ways it is your stock fantasy novel city state with all the olde worlde trappings you'd expect but seeing it all through the eyes of this rather naive protagonist, the customs and ways of this place are full of surprises.

With no social standing to speak of Soldier is right at the bottom of the heap. The hunter that accompanied him to the city simply disappears and being so obviously an alien, Soldier soon comes to the attention of the (corrupt) authorities. He tries to avoid trouble by finding gainful employment though opportunities are few and far between. The best he manages is with one Spagg, a trader in magical talismans made from the severed body parts of executed criminals. (Chopped up bodies adorn many pages of this novel. It seems to be a preoccupation of the author's) It is Soldier's job to gather these raw materials from the many gibbets that adorn the high places of the city. The proceeds from this work allow Soldier to find meagre shelter in the sewers. There he befriends a young mother, Uthellen and her child - reportedly the son of a powerful wizard.

For their own reasons the authorities now decide that Soldier has outstayed his welcome and he is promptly arrested and sentenced to death. It's a rather unforgiving place is Zamerkand! To escape this fate, Soldier must either be vouched for by a citizen (the unscrupulous Spagg denies him) or a maid must agree to wed him (something his new friend, the young mother, no longer qualifies for). Just when it looks like all is doom for our protagonist a mysterious stranger in a sedan chair crosses the path of him and his guards. In desperation he appeals to her to help him and without speaking directly to him she sends word through the guards that she will consent to marry him. Having done this she promptly departs and the astonished guards inform Soldier that he is now engaged to one other than Princess Layana, the Queen's sister. All looks bright once more for Soldier - at least until the guards also inform him that the Princess is quite mad and brutally killed her two previous husbands!

Up to this point this is all pretty good stuff from Hunter. Solider is steered on a sure path and we do care about what happens to this hapless wanderer. However I found that from hereon in, the plotting of Knight's Dawn rather falls apart. In an effort to find a cure for his fiance's madness (it turns out she has been cursed by a powerful wizard) Hunter sends Soldier on a series of loosely connected adventures which really don't seem to do much to move the story along. The net effect of this is a sort of meandering plot line that is in complete contrast to the directness of the novel's opening.

In an effort to clearly please the widest possible audience Hunter now adds various standard fantasy story ingredients to the mix, all of which fall short of the original premise (and promise) of what came before. Knight's Dawn does not benefit front cursory cameo appearances of dragons, trolls, dwarfs and other races cribbed from the Tolkien bestiary nor from cliched fantasy dialogue straight out of Monty Python and Holy Grail. Not that any of these transgressions make this a poor book - just a frustrating one because it opens so well and then doesn't deliver. Hunter is clearly a writer of talent and I look forward to the next installment in The Red Pavilions. I hope though that next time the author is more watchful for the traps and pitfalls that befall this genre.

It turns out that Kim Hunter is a pseudonym and a cleverly androgynous one at that. I find this illustrative of the identity crises that Knight's Dawn suffers from. From it's sure footed beginnings this novel tries any number of hats in order to discover what it is. Not one of them fits so well as the first.