Today’s Book: “The Winter Knight” by Jes Battis
The Plot: In an alternate Vancouver, the Knights of the Round Table – among other figures from English and Germanic mythology – have been reincarnated. When one of them is beheaded at a university faculty party, everyone tries to find the killer.
Autistic Character(s): Wayne, one of our two POV characters – a college student who is the reincarnation of Sir Gawain. Also, the author!
We first meet Wayne at the faculty party where the murder is about to happen, awkwardly skirting the party’s edges in a way I found very familiar. He meets another student, Bert, who’s fascinating and accepting. They share a moment of chemistry; but when the murder is discovered a few moments later, both of them become suspects, including to each other.
Battis isn’t the kind of author who holds a neurotypical reader’s hand and painstakingly explains all the 101 of how autism works. But there’s a lot of painfully apt, recognizable moments in Wayne’s arc, and a lot of thoughtfulness in how they’re portrayed – often showing experiences that are common in real life, but that I don’t see in fiction as often. Without a formal diagnosis, Wayne struggles to register for disability support at his university; he eventually finds a good counselor, who happens to be Sir Galahad somehow, but the process is complicated and ambivalent, and Wayne’s discomfort is relatably described:
Wayne stared at his shoulder, then willed his eyes to move up to the guy’s nose. Noses were safe. Noses were his greatest allies. The psychiatrist looked vaguely familiar.
He extended his hand. “Hi, Wayne. I’m Dr. Hadley.”
Shake his hand. It’s not a claw. It’s just a hand, and it’ll be over in three-two-one.
He pumped the hand once for good measure, then withdrew. A ghost of the contact remained in his fingertips, like mild shocks.
He gets euphoric when he sees a fellow student displaying symbols of neurodiversity pride. He struggles with how to disclose his autism on a first date with Bret, and feels awkward and defensive and exposed.
The Winter Knight is a literary novel, not the kind of tropey urban fantasy that its premise might suggest; most of its magic is not transparent or easily explained. Characters remember their mythic past lives but blurrily, in jumbles crossing multiple lives which both do and don’t feel like themselves. There are big powers afoot but for the first half of the book they are more shadows and suggestions than visible things, and there is a meandering, dreamlike feel to the whole thing. Wayne and the other protagonist, a valkyrie named Hildie, are trying to solve a murder, but they often feel like they’re flailing to construct any meaning out of the information they can see: more hints than clues, more omens than leads. They’ll get partway to figuring a part of the case out and then get distracted by a fox, an uncertain flirtation, or something half-remembered from a past life. When the magic does ratchet into high gear – a SkyTrain, for instance, that derails and begins to fly over the ocean – it does it not with SFnal sensawunda but with the uneasy surreality of a nightmare.
I thought about The Green Knight (2021) in some of these sequences, the sense that magic is all around and must be reckoned with, but that it defies easy explanation. I don’t know enough Arthuriana to guess if there’s any intended homage to that movie in particular, or if this is just how all the Gawain stories go. I also thought about how this kind of meandering surreality, in itself, can be a way of writing neurodivergently – rendering an honest picture of how the world looks when you live your life without the expectation that it will ever make sense. Battis at one point draws these parallels themselves:
Remembering something was never a straight line. It was a snarl of lights that needed to be untangled, except that he couldn’t, because all of the lights were connected and winking at each other. Sometimes it felt like he remembered too much, rather than not enough. He knew it had something to do with what various psychiatrists called executive function, but it was way more than that. Memory was different for everyone. His mother used to say that he took the scenic route, and he liked that.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the motive that eventually comes out for the murder is complex. It has a lot to do with stories themselves, the idea that someone’s story is repeated over and over in different iterations, and what they would have to do – what depths they might find themselves sinking to – in attempting to escape that fate. But the eventual villain of the story isn’t the only one who asks those questions; the heroes have also been asking them all along. All of the knights, valkyries, and other mythic creatures have a complicated relationship with the myths that define them. Some of them cling to what they find meaningful about their pasts, even as the world shifts around them; some resent and resist their mythic heritage, only to find meaning in it later; and some have been updating their identities from the beginning, skillfully making them work to suit their present selves. The metatextuality, the idea of being trapped in your own story and what that does and doesn’t mean, reminds me of some of Merc Fenn Wolfmoor’s work.
Occasionally the meandering plot started to frustrate me, but overall this is a very well written book, with a strong sense of place and a lot of intriguing themes to chew on. The autism representation is great, and it’s also very queer. (Bert is a bear – not in the sense of being an animal shifter or something, but in the gay sense; it’s great to see bears in this context. Hildie is asexual and sapphic and gets a very well-drawn, hesitant, longing romance with a character even more mystical than she is; and Wayne’s best friend Kai is a wonderfully sharp, clever trans woman.)
If you like the slower, thinkier, more impressionistic autistic books, this one’s for you.
The Verdict: Recommended-1
Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher. (I’m sorry it took me so long.)
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.