Could a knight from olde England have an antiwar message for today’s British government? Anything’s possible in Davenport’s mixed-up second novel.
It’s 1372, and Sir Guy de Bryan, veteran warrior and diplomat serving King Edward III, is leaving for Genoa on a vital trade mission. Behind him, in the village of Slapton, is a chapel where priests will sing Masses for his soul. Guy believes he has committed three great sins, and the details are buried like truffles, deep in the text. Once unearthed, two are clearly not sins at all; Guy is blaming himself for accidents beyond his control. The knight is almost unbearably virtuous; that’s the view of Sir John Molyns, the impressive and underutilized villain. Molyns is a stone-cold killer, contemptuous of Guy’s battlefield chivalry. Suddenly, vertigo, as Davenport fast-forwards to contemporary New York, where hawkish young Beth Battock, a British government aide, is assuring Americans of British support for preemptive war. Davenport’s penchant for moving between centuries (see The Painter, 2003) is a shame. He’s far more robust in the past. As for Beth’s tenuous link to the 14th century, she’s a direct descendant of the licentious priest who arranged Guy’s masses; ever since, her family has continued to sing them. Davenport is on more solid ground going over the key episodes of Guy’s life: the siege of Calais, the brushes with Molyns, two jousting tournaments for the hand of Elizabeth and his eventual blissful marriage to her. Towering above is the battle at Crécy, where Guy sanctioned the use of cannonballs and inadvertently ended the age of chivalry (his second big sin). This led to the antiwar Declaration inscribed in his chapel, which will in turn, after a series of absurd contrivances, be cited approvingly by the British Foreign Secretary, resigning to protest his country’s support for war.
The medieval episodes, like campfire tales, are enjoyable in their own right; otherwise, Davenport’s latest is a mess.