The Black Chalice (Malory's Knights of Albion)
by Steven Savile
Review by Liz de Jager
Abaddon Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781907519666
Date: 17 March 2011 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website /
"Aspirant to the Round Table, Sir Alymere, fails on the Grail quest but in so doing, learns of the Devil's Own Cup, "the Black Chalice" and of the Devil's Bible the foul book that will lead him to it. On his quest he will face many obstacles and cunning enemies, but the ultimate threat is to his very soul."
The Black Chalice starts with the young noble Alymere arriving at Camelot with nothing more than his father's name, the raggedy clothes on his back and his father's chainmail shirt. He meets with one of Arthur's knights, the famous, jocular and charming Sir Bors. Bors takes an instant liking to Alymere and introduces him to Arthur. The story Alymere tells is one of neglect. After his father's death, his uncle usurped the castle and lands, sending Alymere, his mother, and a faithful servant into poverty. The servant taught Alymere as much as he could about the ways of Camelot, chivalry, and the knightly code, and once the servant too, passed away, nothing was keeping Alymere in the hovel he was living in. He chose to come to Camelot and present himself at King Arthur's court.
Arthur instructs Bors to start training young Alymere in the various martial arts a knight needs to know, but during one session of sparring against another knight, Alymere reveals a deep flaw. He attacks an unarmed man out of anger, when the man's back is turned. Bors is alarmed, as is Arthur. Alymere realises his crucial mistake and self-doubt sets in. He is called to an audience with Arthur who in turn reveals that Alymere's uncle had come seeking custody of the young knight. Arthur grants the petition, knowing full well that Alymere's uncle is the best man to train his nephew and bring him up as a true and honourable knight. This confrontation is also an important test and one that Alymere acquiesces to, trusting in Arthur to do the right thing.
We move ahead in time. A period of almost two years has passed. Alymere has come to trust his uncle, Sir Lowrick and Lowrick in turn has come to rely on Alymere and see him as his son.
Things go very awry when, during a routine stop to check on the local villages and area during a massive snowstorm, they stumble across the evidence of a Scottish raid. Sir Lowrick and Alymere do their best to save some people and help them back to safety. Finally they make their way to a monastic community, only to find that the monastery and monks are fighting both raiders and blazing fires.
It is here where things turn sour for Alymere and we are shown how one wrong decision can change a person's future. This decision snowballs and in the end we have a thoroughly unpleasant main character on our hands. One who has become even more unreliable than when we met him - mainly as we are not quite sure if he's truly as warped as he comes across. The quest for the Black Chalice is not an honourable thing he's doing. He's doing it for awful selfish reasons as a demonic devilish voice spurring him on. It is an interesting conundrum presented to the reader: do we hope Alymere gets to redeem himself or do we wish him into the fires of hell?
The story unfolds with the focus on Alymere, his morals and his choices, be they right or wrong. The knights of the Round Table are background to Alymere's story. As is Arthur whom we only meet a few times and who sets things in motion, but other than that, the "big names" if we can call them that, have no direct influence or part in this story, which was wholly unexpected.
Saville's writing is easily read and the dialogue is kept to a minimum. There is a lot of internal debate and observation and unless a reader is used to the idiosyncrasies of high fantasy, they might be put off. Alymere's character lends itself to exploring the darker side of the Arthurian legends.
The Black Chalice is based on the Salisbury Manuscript found in 2006 by a group of students helping to catalogue various crates stored in the St Barbara and St Christopher parish church. Abaddon won the chance to translate the documents, purported to be the Second Book of King Arthur and his Knights by Mallory, a kind of sequel to Morte. Saville's interpretation of the document is unique and reads more like a historical fantasy than a work of long-lost literature. That is, if you ever believed the legends of Arthur to be historically true in the first place.