I picked up L-J Baker’s Lady Knight (published in 2007) at a used book store recently and was pleasantly surprised by its successful blend of fantasy and alt-historical realism. The book is sent in a medieval-esque period in which divine power is real and kingdoms stand at the brink of a new holy war. Riannon is a very capable female knight, terribly injured in the last major action against the infidels, who has spent her life struggling to uphold her honor in the face of male scorn and societal expectations. After an encounter with her cousin Aveline, a priestess of the Goddess, Riannon pledges her service as a paladin and receives in return a magical sword that keeps her alive. Pleased that she has the just cause she’s spent years searching for, but wary of her ambituious cousin’s motivations, Riannon is unprepared to be floored by love. She meets the lovely and quick-witted Eleanor as they escort a young bride to her politically arranged marriage.
Eleanor, twice-widowed and wealthy, has been purchasing her continued freedom from the crown. She is intrigued by the scarred lady knight and works to draw her out, seeing the glints of humor and personality beneath her deep reserve. Baker draws both characters very well and their attraction is palpable, but the rules of society are such that–even when Riannon gains acceptance as a martial hero–she and Eleanor remain subject to the whims of their new queen. Baker doesn’t pull any punches, confronting the lovers with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that puts Riannon’s highly-valued honor on the line. She also follows Aveline’s rise to power in the order of the Goddess and the initiation of the holy war that Aveline champions.
Baker’s setting is richly imagined and detailed, and though she includes some archaic expressions (the word “certes,” for example) and modes of speech, she thankfully stops well short of overloading the reader. There are many questions left unanswered at the end of the narrative, however, leading me to wonder if she planned on someday writing a sequel. If she does, I’ll definitely want to read it.