New Releases: The Black Chalice by Steven Savile
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
The Black Chalice is the first volume in Abaddon's newest shared world: Malory's Knights of Albion. The setting's underlying proposition is ingeniously simple: someone's dug up a "lost" book of Malory's stories. The result is a fresh supply of the highest of high fantasy - noble knights venturing forth against unsavoury evil (historical accuracy need not apply).
If The Black Chalice is any indication, the series has also excelled itself in looking behind the trappings of the Malory tales and into the themes. The knights weren't godly paladins - they were deeply flawed men who embodied not purity, but the virtue of striving for purity. They were angry, brutal, horny warriors who failed again and again to achieve perfection. That perpetual dream - the ceaseless desire to do good - is what made the Knights of the Round Table something special. They weren't demi-gods, they were ordinary schmucks that had the balls to try awfully hard. (Well, it helps that they were all land-owning Christian white male aristocrats, but let's leave that alone.)
And when it comes to "trying really hard", The Black Chalice's Alymere takes the cake. In the proper Arthurian tradition, the bedraggled young lord staggers into Camelot. Alymere's father was one of Arthur's knights, but upon his death, our hero's eeeeeevil uncle seized their holdings. Now (unsurprisingly), Alymere wants his castle back. He's made the long journey to Camelot in search of justice and to claim his father's seat at the table. This is how it happens in the stories and Alymere is certain of his right.
Alymere's lofty expectations are swiftly crushed. He's not the best swordsman in the realm (he's actually a bit crap), he's not a paragon of knightly virtue (he has a terrible temper) and, most importantly, right doesn't make... well... right. In fact, Arthur responds to Alymere's petition by promptly ensquiring him to his eeeeeeevil uncle. Our hero is crushed.
These are merely the first disappointments in a lengthy series of frustrations and misadventures that plague Alymere. He's a fairly mediocre knight - certainly not a great one - and often falls into the temptation of mistaking his own flares of anger for some sort of deeper (and more rational) moral decision. It doesn't take long before he's pledged himself to the wrong woman and galloped off on the wrong quest: a search for the Devil's Bible and the legendary Black Chalice.
Alymere's story is a combination of the clinical and the visceral. He's certainly adventuring by the numbers - a wise old man, a woman of the woods, evil raiders (from Scotland, no less!) and an allegorical sword fight or two. These are all elements easily recognised from Malory's other (real) stories. But Mr. Savile adds his own touch with The Black Chalice's gutsy (literally) modern spin. Although there's no plot twist that's any darker than something found in Malory, Mr. Savile presents his gory vignettes and brain-curdling plot twists with a malicious glee that must stem from his horror roots. Alymere isn't an automaton of the knightly code, he's a fairly wretched individual - seemingly punished by God, Devil and man at every turn. He's alternately abused by his family, confused by women, horrified by his enemies and betrayed by his friends. Our protagonist was raised on tales of courtly love and knightly conduct, only to find himself cast into a world of soup-thick hormones and cheap shots.
Just as Malory's Quest for the Holy Grail is a tale of failure, disgrace and, ultimately, redemption, so is Mr. Savile's The Black Chalice. Mr. Savile, however, has much more fun. If the underlying foundations are impressively Malorean (not this one), there's a hefty dollop of pulp icing on top. Malory had his moments, but never fully got to indulge in swooning women, horrific mutilations, demonic whisperings and blood-stained axes - Mr. Savile corrects this oversight. The Black Chalice not only upholds the Arthurian tradition of chivalry and knighthood but also the Abaddon legacy of intelligent pulp.