Tuesday, November 27, 2012
A Knight's Trial by Kieran Coghlan
I've seen Kieran Coghlan's work in each of the prior Windhammer competitions, and always been impressed by it. He has a stronger sense of character than most gamebook authors, and his works are more concerned with the internal workings of the human spirit than most.
Which is why I was so disappointed that A Knight's Trial opens with a sword blow to the neck. A combat decision, first thing? Really Kieran? Before you swing a sword at my character's neck, give me a reason to care whether he gets chopped. At this point in the story, I'd just as soon see him get beheaded and move on to the next character/story/gamebook.
To be fair, by the end, it absolutely does live up to my expectations, but I definitely found, from my own perspective at least, that it jumped far too quickly into the action, without setting up the characters and giving you a reason to care. Who are you? What's your background? Why is Lancelot your mentor? Why do you want to become a Knight? What significance does it have to you whether you win this trial or not? Basically: why should I care?
Without that fundamental question answered, I had to force myself to keep reading. It didn't catch my interest on its own merits until the hints started coming in that all might not be as it seemed--but that was a little way in. It would do well to hook the reader before that.
While I was, to a certain extent, happy with the reveal at the end, I still did not feel like any of the core questions had been answered. Who is this character? Who is, or was, his "tormentor?" What happened to put him in this state? Why does he care so much about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that this world is the most appropriate metaphor for the character's trial?
These are the important questions. These are the interesting questions. This story has an incredible amount of potential. It's even standard for the old romance genre to be heavily laden with allegory. We could have seen a deep and interesting character traveling through a mindscape that looks like Camelot, with every person, every encounter, every villain or threat, explicitly allegorical, the entire thing a metaphor for this character's recovery. Instead, we have a fairly bland dungeon crawl with a "twist" at the end, like a stage magician ripping away the cloth at the end of his show and shouting, "ta-daaaa," without really explaining anything.
Often, important backstory questions can be left unanswered when they don't matter. But in this case, the questions about this character absolutely do matter. The answers, i.e. what happened to him, who he is, what his trauma is... those are the things which would make this story powerful.
At the end of the day, it's a brilliant concept, but I just have the feeling like the story ended up missing it's own point. It's not about making arbitrary decisions in a metaphorical dungeon (no, not even if you break the fourth wall to point out that they are arbitrary). It's about making metaphorical decisions of deep psychological significance to break out of a self-imposed prison of the mind.
I know Kieran's writing, and I know he has the potential to pull this off. He's done it before. I can only assume that the story just needed one more revision cycle to find it's center. If A Knight's Trial was done to the full potential, both of the premise and of the author, I think it could be one of his best. As it stands... it's just not there yet.