Hi everyone, I hope you’re well! Something I don’t talk about often enough on the blog is how much I love Arthurian legend retellings! I grew up watching the BBC Merlin tv show, and falling in love with both Morgana and Gwen, and have loved every other adaptation I’ve consumed since – especially the Once & Future duology. So, of course, I was so excited by an urban fantasy Arthuriana retelling where knights are celebrities and ride around on motorbikes, with forbidden magic, and with electricity as a monetary system, so I had to request Laure Eve’s Blackheart Knights when I saw it on Netgalley – but I couldn’t help but feeling a bit underwhelmed when I finally finished this tome of a book.
Title: Blackheart Knights
Author: Joan He
Genre: Fantasy, LGBT+, Adult
Synopsis: Power always wins.
Imagine Camelot but in Gotham: a city where knights are the celebrities of the day, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money.
Imagine a city where a young, magic-touched bastard astonishes everyone by becoming king – albeit with extreme reluctance – and a girl with a secret past trains to become a knight for the sole purpose of vengeance.
Imagine a city where magic is illegal but everywhere, in its underground bars, its back-alley soothsayers – and in the people who have to hide what they are for fear of being tattooed and persecuted.
Imagine a city where electricity is money, power the only game worth playing, and violence the most fervently worshipped religion.
Welcome to a dark, chaotic, alluring place with a tumultuous history, where dreams come true if you want them hard enough – and are prepared to do some very, very bad things to get them . . .
As I mentioned, I had really high hopes for this book – I love a good retelling that’s set in a completely different setting to its original one, and when I found out it has a sapphic lead and queer side characters, I was even more excited! The book follows two perspectives – Red who is hiding her illegal magic and is desperate to become a knight so that she can get vengeance for something that happened in her past, and Art whose father is killed and so, reluctantly, he has to enter a champion into a caballeria fight that will determine who will become the next ruler of the city.
At first I really enjoyed my time reading the book – despite it being a tad infodumpy at times, I love a good training montage bit in a book, so I loved seeing Red slowly but surely making her way through her knight training, as well as seeing Art reluctantly letting his best friend, Garad, fight for him in the caballeria (a sort of fight between knights) to determine who will become the next king, though Art wants anything but that. I found both of their characters to be so interesting, and Art’s quietness really contrasted with Red’s strength well. I also enjoyed the friendships and relationships that they were beginning to cultivate at the start of the book, but despite Laure Eve’s intriguing writing (I loved the unique language used throughout that was woven with snippets of French, Spanish and German), I really felt let down by what the book promised.
I think by going through the synopsis above I might be able to give you the best idea of what disappointed me the most. As for the knights in this world being celebrities – I guess I can see where that is coming from. The caballeria fights are broadcast on the glow networks to the whole kingdom, and people do enjoy watching the bouts, but to say that they are fighting for fame and money is completely wrong. I was looking forward to seeing preening knights who were the centre of attention, but these fights are more similar to the forms of justice seen in Medieval Europe where, when a claim arises (for a crime or something of the like), the defendant and the opposing party each have a knight fighting on their behalf, but the knight knows nothing of the issue at hand and must fight their best regardless, and so whichever knight wins, that person wins the disagreement. And despite this being a really interesting bit of worldbuilding, I just felt like it wasn’t really what was advertised at all. In fact, none of the knights that we came across in the book acted like pompous celebrities at all, and I think there was maybe only one or two motorbikes used in the whole book!
As for the ‘young magic-touched bastard’ you may think that he is the one with the magic, but no. His father, the king-in-the-ground Uther, slept with godschild under shady circumstances, but Art has no magical abilities of his own at all – in fact it seems he kind of hates all godschildren in general. And again, because of this synopsis, I felt like there was going to be some sort of reveal where, actually, he does have magic, but that never happened. As a wee bit of a digression, there was so much hinting to Art being either gay or on the asexual or aromantic spectrum throughout the book, but it was never developed upon and felt like a huge cop-out.
The next paragraph, again, is misleading – yes the magic is illegal but it is still very much present throughout the whole world. It was so easy for Red and her friends to find a soothsayer, and two of the most well known caballeria knights were godschildren who faced practically no persecution for their magic.
The penultimate paragraph all about electricity being a currency really just links to my feeling that the world in general was underdeveloped. It’s clear that Laure Eve has put a lot of work into creating this sprawling parallel-universe London, but everything about it felt like I was missing so much information. Electricity as money sounds so interesting but we never got any information on how it worked at all. We did get some information about how London was split into different areas each ‘ruled over’ by a different person, but apart from small mentions of the mysterious ‘north’ we never got any information about the rest of England never mind the rest of the world.
But what was the most frustrating was the plot. It went absolutely nowhere. We don’t get to find out what Red is trying to get revenge for until the very end of the book, though this is definitely understandable and I didn’t expect to get it until right at the end. But when it is revealed to us, you’re told outright what it is and there aren’t any good enough clues throughout for it to all click and make you go “ahhh why didn’t I see this coming!!” when you finally figure it out. It just fell so, so flat. There were also countless interesting side characters that I thought would play a much bigger part in the story but they were just dropped and forgotten about *cough* Red’s fellow knights that she went through training with *cough*. And the second half of the book was just so boring plot-wise compared to the first that I really lost interest and kept reading only to find out what would happen at the end. I really think this book could have been split into two books to fully develop on everything, because I really feel like it could’ve been a new favourite if that were the case.
Despite this book being a wee bit of a letdown, there definitely is some merit to it – the angle of the retelling is really interesting and I think it will really intrigue other readers who love a good Arthuriana retelling, and the queer rep throughout was really wonderful, but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed at what we did get aside from those.