Posted on September 8, 2008 by Monica Valentinelli
Within the realm of fantasy books, there are often stories that wander behind-the-scenes of a traditional sword-and-sorcery plot, describing knights, princesses and faraway places as real as if the author imagined Merlin himself lived right next door to you.
In James P. Blaylock’s The Knights of the Cornerstone, due out on December 2, 2008, we meet Calvin Bryson, a recluse deeply affected by his broken engagement and his love of rare books and pamphlets. Carefully living off of his family’s inheritance, Calvin dabbles in drawing cartoons and doesn’t really care to think much about what’s going on in the world.
Calvin had thoroughly gotten used to doing nothing these past months of being alone, unless you counted the cartoons and the book collecting. Elaine, the woman he had been engaged to, had accused him of being aimless, but in fact he wasn’t aimless at all. Tonight, for example, he aimed to finish cataloguing his collection of pamphlets from Futura Press and maybe read a book, and then he aimed to go to bed early.
Not long after, Calvin receives a strange box from relatives he hadn’t seen in a while — his cousin Hosmer and his Uncle Lymon. This precious artifact — supposedly a veil from a long-dead aunt used in her seances — is the start of Calvin’s journey back to New Cyprus, a town tucked away from the world’s prying eyes.
Calvin’s aimless, unintentional nature is at the forefront of this story about his initiation into the world of the Knights of the Cornerstone, a “secret history” plot centered on the Knights Templar. Blaylock asks the questions, “What if the Knights Templar had thrived throughout the centuries? What if magic were real, magic based on holy relics and mystical places like the Temple of Solomon?”
The Knights of the Cornerstone focuses more on Calvin’s humanity and how Calvin deals with the idea that magic exists in the world, rather than forcing him into a brutal environment that he may or may not be equipped to deal with. For example, when Calvin meets one of the antagonists, a threatening man by the name of Bob Postum, he doesn’t stare him down or immediately identify him as a “bad guy,” he relies on other characters like Shirley Fowler, Aunt Nettie, Uncle Lymon and Taber to help guide him. Always questioning what he sees, Calvin is, in this way, a realistic character that deals with the oddities and other personalities of New Cyprus in the best way that he knows how. He is not a character that has superpowers or knows how to use a magic wand — in many ways he’s not a hero, he’s an outsider looking into a society that he may (or may not) join.
Because of the emphasis on character development and the “reality” of this setting, the pacing is a lot different from other fantasy books where the setting and magical sparks are overtly center stage. Blaylock is considered a writer of magic realism, a genre that seems to straddle the border between literary fiction and fantasy. If you think about the fantasy genre as a scale with Lord of the Rings on the one end, books like The Knights of the Cornerstone and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys are more on the opposite. Take, for example, this quote from Wikipedia’s definition of Magical Realism:
The characters’ reactions to the ‘inexplicable’ is key to the definition of Magic-Realism: inexplicable phenomena occur in extremely mundane circumstances and the character(s) tend to not respond adequately (or at all) to the supernatural or magic nature of the event. On the contrary, they often treat the magical event as an annoyance, a setback, or an unwanted obligation.–SOURCE: Wikipedia
This definition suits Calvin’s character to a “T,” and readers familiar with this specific genre will enjoy the pace as Calvin slowly wades through odd conversations, ghosts, old grudges, murder and kidnapping. More interesting than Calvin’s introduction to the Knights Templar, though, is Uncle Lymon. Here is a man torn between his Knightly duty and the love he has for his wife, Aunt Nettie, who is dying of cancer. While I’d like to refrain from revealing too much for fear I’ll spoil the story for you, there is a particular scene in this book that is truly unforgettable — and human. If you knew your loved one was dying, what lengths would you go to save them? Would you break your Oath? Defy God?
A story with layers of revised history and character motivations, The Knights of the Cornerstone hints at a world where “good” and “bad” aren’t necessarily clear cut. Human motivations are tempered by love and greed rather than good versus evil. Take this quote by Uncle Lymon when he carefully explains to Calvin what Bob Postum’s character flaw is.
LYMON: “…Turning water into wine–that’s magic. Talking snakes in the garden. Drawing water out of a stone. There’s good in that kind of magic and there’s bad in it, depending upon who you are. That’s Postum’s downfall–who he is. If he heard of a talking snake, he’d want to own it and put it to some kind of use–have it tell fortunes or something. But you can’t own a miracle. It doesn’t belong to anyone or anything on earth.”
Here Lymon explains the crux of how magic is viewed in this setting — magic itself isn’t inherently good or evil, it’s the intent of the person wielding the magic that makes the difference. The source of the magic behind the holy relics or the strange, supernatural events are never explicitly explained, merely hinted at. Here Blaylock relies on stereotypes within our collective consciousness to impart why New Cyprus is so important, why the Templars must protect it at all costs and what it will mean for Calvin once he decides what path he’ll take.
Centered on supernatural, religious themes and the choices Blaylock’s realistic characters must make, The Knights of the Cornerstone is a good book for careful readers. Once Calvin delivers the veil, his uncomfortable family reunion is short-lived as he explores the mystery behind New Cyprus, the veil, and the threats facing him, his family and the town. This is the type of tale that can slip into multiple reading styles because of its attention to crystal clear prose, steady pacing and unique characters, so if you like the kind of story that takes you gently by the hand, reminding you to look over your shoulder every once in a while until you have no choice but to look behind you — then The Knights of the Cornerstone is definitely for you.