MINI REVIEW: THE TALE OF THE BORDER KNIGHT
HOW I RATED IT
5/5 So much ground is covered in terms of character development, lore building, and general plotting, yet somehow Witham manages to deliver an evenly paced adventure full of wit, action, and magic.
Set thousands of years before THE LEGEND OF BLACK JACK, we are immediately introduced to a band of seven men that the readers of Witham's debut will recognize (as the title suggests). It was a ton of fun to meet these early versions of the Border Knights and discover the land of Keymark all over again as it is just in it's infancy as a realm. The story is told across three chapters that felt kind of episodic. The book is short enough where I imagine many will just devour it in an afternoon, but I actually took it in three parts, treating it almost like a collection of short stories. I mostly only did this to savor it and to use it as a little treat since I would read a chapter after some much dryer reading I was doing with a professional development book. I honestly think either way is a perfectly fine way to consume the story. I loved the way that characters are developed on the go, and I was thrilled that this story actually shows us what the fabled elves were really like back in their heyday. Everything just moves along so smoothly, from the brutal opening skirmish to the climactic battle sequence in the third act. The only thing that threw me off somewhat was that I didn't quite remember some of the knights, including Stahl, who serves as our main character here, but is one of the knights with the least amount of page time in the original novel. While I did flip through my copy of BLACK JACK to figure out where each of them fit in, this was ultimately unnecessary because this novella does a good enough job of reintroducing them all to the reader.
Like I mentioned before, this story focusses on Stahl. While Valerian might seem like the more obvious choice for a main character, I actually thought it was interesting that a much less familiar figure is given his time to shine and it probably worked better to tell this story from the perspective of someone who's a little goofier and less composed than Valerian. I liked the way the other knights came across as well. Each is very quickly characterized and I loved that I got to see them all in a new light. Things start off rather dire for the group and it was incredible to see them persevere through those seemingly hopeless circumstances and really interesting to witness the amount of faith that they put in Valerian as their leader. The banter between these seven brothers in arms could get a little weird at times, but it was funny all the same.
Even characters who got a lot less time on page in this quick story felt rather distinct. The regality of the elves and the brutality of those who'd do them harm came through brilliantly. While I'd happily have spent more time getting to know representatives of these two races better, I was also perfectly fulfilled with what was provided here. I also appreciated how we got to see a version of Keymark that the elves are only just starting to put together.
The story begins in The Wastes which I don't believe we ever explored in the original novel, but this land certainly lives up to its name. While not the most interesting location, it did serve as a compelling backdrop to the initial conflict while also doing a good job to manifest a sense of desperation and hopelessness. Things get a lot more lush when the band of downtrodden men reach the border of Keymark. While we'd been to this region of the world already, I loved seeing this fledgling version of it. I also loved the way Witham described it's construction with the elves putting their power on full display as they slowly form what will later become a sprawling realm. One thing that's never been super clear to me with the world building is where the Border Knights themselves actually come from. They seem like they could have come from the "real" world, but they could have also come from another realm entirely and there are some pieces of dialogue that suggest that either this is the case or that this version of our world was a lot more magical in the past. This was a small gripe though as Keymark continues to be quite a compelling fantasy setting that I hope to see another full novel set in.
While it may not have interior illustrations like THE LEGEND OF BLACK JACK did, this paperback is still beautifully put together. The fonts and formatting choices from Witham's debut were rather iconic in their own way, so I was very happy to see all of that remain consistent here as well. As with the novel, this novella is pristinely polished as well.
THE TALE OF THE BORDER KNIGHT is a must-read for those who enjoyed Witham's debut as well as those who maybe just want to get a taste for his writing before they commit to a full journey into Keymark.
(+) A well paced adventure that added a ton to already established Keymark lore
(+) Lots of exciting action throughout
(+) Each knight felt very distinct and I was connected to them all almost immediately
(+) The way the mythical elves were handled was really well done and super interesting
(-) It took me a rather long time to remember who some of the knights were from the original book (especially Stahl).