Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Gay autistic MC, M/M, ace-spectrum panromantic MC, F/F, secondary trans character, background polyamory
PoV: Third-person, past tense; multiple PoVs
Published on: 4th April 2023
Arthurian legends are reborn in this upbeat queer urban fantasy with a mystery at its heart
The knights of the round table are alive in Vancouver, but when one winds up dead, it’s clear the familiar stories have taken a left turn. Hildie, a Valkyrie and the investigator assigned to the case, wants to find the killer — and maybe figure her life out while she’s at it. On her short list of suspects is Wayne, an autistic college student and the reincarnation of Sir Gawain, who these days is just trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for him. After finding himself at the scene of the crime, Wayne is pulled deeper into his medieval family history while trying to navigate a new relationship with the dean’s charming assistant, Burt — who also happens to be a prime murder suspect. To figure out the truth, Wayne and Hildie have to connect with dangerous forces: fallen knights, tricky runesmiths, the Wyrd Sisters of Gastown. And a hungry beast that stalks Wayne’s dreams.
The Winter Knight is a propulsive urban fairy tale and detective story with queer and trans heroes that asks what it means to be a myth, who gets to star in these tales, and ultimately, how we make our stories our own.
I received this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~there’s a kelpie in the lobby
~that office is a FLAGRANT health-code violation
~a most unconventional means of storing swords
~FOLLOW THAT FOX
~unexpected Arthurian OT3: I ship it
~MEGA POINTS for knowing the correct term for a unicorn horn!
Here’s the thing: I don’t like detective stories and I don’t really care for Arthurian legend.
But I freaking loved THIS.
This? Is going straight onto my Best of 2023 list.
Her notes indicated that it had been about love, not magic, though they were so often the same.
Investigative urban fantasy is a pretty big and well-established genre, but despite its premise, The Winter Knight doesn’t fit the template. It doesn’t have the breakneck pacing of something like the Kate Daniels series, nor the blunt-and-punchy, action-story prose you might expect. The slower pace allows Battis’ debut to be more introspective and descriptive than is typical for murder-mystery urban fantasy; it’s richer, deeper, and more thoughtful.
Which very much means that you’re going to be disappointed if you pick this up looking for a fast, easy, high-thrills read. But I think readers who approach it knowing what to expect are likely to enjoy the hell out of it.
Because this book is honestly beautiful. I was not expecting something so…soft? But not soft like cosy, or low-stakes, or gentle. The Winter Knight is soft like the fur of the Questing Beast – softness that has hard, powerful muscle underneath it; softness that comes with teeth. Softness you want to rub your cheek against, but which could drag you down and pull you under and might just be the last thing you ever see.
If you froze that moment, it would throb with happiness and pain, like a bloody knee.
…I’m not making sense, am I? Let me start again.
At a gathering of reborn Arthurians (not what they call themselves, but what I’m going to call them to make talking about them easier), a dead body appears. The valkyries of Norse mythology arrive to investigate, but there’s too few clues and too many suspects, and it’s obvious pretty much immediately that they’re not going to get anywhere. Alas, it’s not a one-off: other deaths and near-deaths follow, and someone seems to be attacking the very heart of the mythological community in a move that a) makes no sense, because b) it could potentially lead to the end of time and space.
Those are the stakes, but they don’t feel especially urgent for most of the book, to be honest; Hildie, the lead valkyrie on the case, is clashing with her mother while trying to deal with having Feels for the manifestation of the literal Future; and Wayne, a young reborn knight, mostly wants to hang out with his runesmith bestie Kai, pine for the guy he maybe shouldn’t be pining for, and get his university to sign the special accommodations forms for his autism.
From the stories she’d told, Shar had a very broad dating pool, which included ghosts, elemental forces, and, once, a pansexual quasar. Exhausting, she’d said. Don’t date anything that has a radioactive corona.
And yet, there are plenty of deep questions that need answering too: for one, Wayne coming to terms, or making peace, with what it means to be a legend, a knight, an aspect of his identity that’s even more complicated than being queer and neurodiverse! Because the Arthurians aren’t anything as simple as reincarnated versions of actual historical figures – they’re myths, and given that every myth has hundreds of variations, that can make it pretty difficult to figure out who you are as a person. Wayne is Gawain, yes – but who the hell is Gawain? And what is Gawain’s relationship to Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and all the rest? Especially as Knights tend to be born to other Knights, which means an ally-in-arms from your last life could be your parent in this one!
The Winter Knight never gripped me with that addictive, unputdownable-ness we so often rave about – but it seduced me with softness, so that I kept coming back, kept wishing I could get back to it when I had to do something else. It has a slightly dreamy quality, which is delightfully balanced by a cackling sense of humour and a free hand with the pop culture references; I’ve never been to Vancouver, but the story seemed very grounded in real physical reality, the setting practically another character in and of itself. This isn’t my favourite ever iteration of urban setting + magic, but it is one of the best examples I’ve seen where the urban and the magic feel equally important and perfectly cohesive, rather than separate-but-alongside each other like oil and water.
It’s a little hard to explain.
Battis seemed more interested in thoughtfully exploring the world-slash-mythos they’ve created – and the various amazing characters in it – than rushing the plot along, and since that’s exactly what I wanted, I couldn’t be happier. I adore Battis’ take on the Arthurians, not just as characters but the whole concept of these living myths being reborn over and over – and I very nearly shrieked with delight at the brief glimpse we got of there being far more to ‘the community’ than just the Arthurians; it felt sneaky and gleeful, like a wink from author to reader.
She recognised Anglish and Cornish, as well as the burr of Breton and the liquid syllables of Old Irish. Someone in the back was speaking what might have been Sumerian, but that was above her pay grade.
DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH TINY WORLDBUILDING DETAILS LIKE THAT DELIGHT ME?
A LOT. THEY DELIGHT ME A LOT.
The magic the Knights wield is very nearly as wonderful as the glorious poetry that is the Wyrd Sisters and the hotel they run (where the laws of physics need not apply). And that’s another thing – the poetry. It’s not just that Battis’ worldbuilding delights me (though it does!), but their prose is more than up to the task of conveying the wonder, the strangeness, the cold-sharp-glass thrill when things come to a head. The writing flows like water between lines that make you laugh–
Could they date on a quantum level? That seemed unsustainable.
lines that make you ache—
They were just two dancing quarks who’d found each other and refused to let go.
lines that make you shiver—
“He’d die for me.” Kai’s eyes burned into her for a second. “I’d kill for him. That’s the main difference between us.”
lines that make you go I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE–
The scar on his ankle, which carried no explanation with it. Just another footnote.
lines that perfectly express feelings you’ve never been able to put into words–
Mental traffic jam.
and lines you feel right down in your SOUL–
A date was probably safer than reading together, which could lead to real attachment.
All of which made it a joy to read – honestly, I would have read a book about far less interesting characters and magic and suspicious foxes and monsters and totally-not-sentient spears just for the writing alone! Battis has THAT level of talent, folx.
Meaning: I will be delighted if they decide to return to this verse in another book. But I will pounce on ANYTHING they write from this moment on, REGARDLESS of the premise, pitch, or genre.
As should you. And you should DEFINITELY start with The Winter Knight, which is out next week!