Friday, July 19, 2024

Tragedy in Lady Knight

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The dedication to Lady Knight reads “To the people of New York City, I always knew the great sacrifice and kindness my neighbors are capable of, but now the rest of the country knows, too.” It’s a somber beginning to a book about the tragedy of war. Obviously, it talks about the events of 9/11, and the book was published in 2002, barely a year afterwards. It’s the grimmest of Pierce’s books so far, but like the dedication, it also shows the most kindness.

Spoilers for Pierces previous work. Warnings for mentions of abuse and the murder of children.



The story begins with Kel in Corus, after her ordeal, where a Stormwing taunts her about the coming war. She re-enters the Chamber of Ordeal, which clarifies the task it set her in the last book. It says that the Nothing Man will come across her path, and she will stop him. They head north, and at a way station, Kel adopts a ten-year-old boy. His names is Tobe, he uses horse magic, and he’s an indentured servant formerly being abused by his master. Kel buys his bond and sets him up to travel with her to the north.

The army arrives at Giantkiller, the fort the King’s Own built with Kel in Squire. Kel and her year-mates report to Wyldon there. Wyldon assigns Kel to lead a refugee camp, with Neal as her healer, and Merric as head of patrols. After meeting the refugees at Giantkiller, Kel accepts. She names the camp Haven, and immediately works to endearing herself to the convict soldiers working there and to the refugees.

They face several attacks by killing-devices. Eventually Numair shows up and tells everyone at Haven who the Nothing Man is. The City of the Gods sent Blayce the Gallan away for his unholy interest in necromancy. He obtained the services of Stenmun, and started creating killing-devices for Maggur, now the Scanran King. Daine also appears and raises the intelligence of the camp cats, dogs, and sparrows so that they can serve as sentries. Kel comforts Daine when the older woman cries about how unfair it was, even though they wanted to help. Giantkiller falls, and Kel goes to report to Wyldon at Fort Mastiff, his new seat of power.

The Fall of Blayce

Kel deals with the refugee’s complaints, earning the trust of headwoman Fanche and weathering Idrius Valestone’s pomposity. She establishes a council, dealing with their complaints, and defending them. She trains everyone on weapons, and personally tutors Tobe and a bunch of other children in the glaive. Kel goes to report to Fort Mastiff. Tobe shows up at midnight with the news that Scanrans attacked Haven and overran it. Wyldon, Kel, and Neal go to the remains, and find Merric wounded there. He says that Stenmun took the refugees.

Wyldon orders Kel to bury the dead and report to Mastiff, taking Neal and Merric with him. Kel buries her people, then sneaks off with the dogs and cats to find her people. When Wyldon and Raoul find out, Raoul screams at Wyldon. Then he sends Dom’s squad of the Own after her, with orders to help her. Tobe and Owen follow, and Neal, Merric, Seaver, and Esmond ride out, attempting to bring her back. Eventually, they catch up with her and join her in rescuing the refugees from Stenmun and Blayce.

A group of smugglers takes them across the Vassa River. They rescue the adults from a company of slavers, and find that Stenmun took the children to Blayce. After a long pursuit and guerrilla tactics, they arrive at Fief Rathhausak, Maggur’s former home and Blayce’s workshop. They work with the locals to infiltrate the castle. Kel kills first Stenmun, than Blayce, and rescues all the children. When they return, despite their treasonous actions, Wyldon forgives them. He then tasks Kel with rebuilding a new home for the refugees, and gives her the whole valley Haven was in to defend. She takes to the task willingly, and the epilogue shows her, Neal, and Tobe going to New Giantkiller for Raoul’s wedding.

The Tragedy and Horror of War

Pierce states in her acknowledgements, that Lady Knight was and was not shaped by 9/11. She planned the destruction of Haven from the beginning. It was also the first thing she wrote after 9/11, and in the edits she, “expressed [her] feelings about war, refugees, and disaster a bit more forcibly” (430) than the first few drafts. It definitely shows.

Stormwings and the Bloody Triangle

While Pierce brushes against war in the horror behind   it before. The origin of Stormwings, and the deaths in Realms of the Gods, they never captured the tragedy of war the way Lady Knight does. Kel’s story is about caring about everyone. She spends the entire summer fighting Stormwings to bury the enemy dead. After the fall of Haven a Stormwing says, “Practically everyone else lets us have the enemy dead, at least. … Who cares about the enemy? … Probably just you.” (242). Kel’s sense of empathy won’t let her treat anything cruelly.

That same motivation isn’t shared by Blayce, Stenmun, and Maggur. Stenmun serves Blacye because he pays well, and he’s empty enough to not care about the children Blayce kills. Blayce took the children from the people of Fief Rathhausak before he took any Tortallan children. Maggur uses Blayce’s machines as a way to hurt Tortall and claim the land and people for his own. Kel wonders if they were a curse from the gods after Stenmun and Blayce’s death. She eventually decides that, “the bloody triangle made by Blayce, Stenmun, and Maggur was sheer, clumsy, human bad luck.” (399). The tragedy of the book is that they came together in the first place.

Giantkiller and Haven

This shows clearly, after Kel reports to Wyldon after Giantkiller falls. She, Owen, and Roald have a conversation on the battlements the night she arrives. Roald talks about how he feels useless because he can’t fight. Owen talks about feeling useless because they can’t find anyone to fight in the forest, while the Scanran’s slip by. Eventually, they talk about the tragedy that was Giantkiller.

“The dead were just strewn everywhere, like my sister’s dolls, all cut up. The ones in the sun were swelling. There were flies, and Stormwings and animals had been at them. … What chaps me is that by the time we got there, the trail was a day old,’ Owen said. ‘We’d no chance to avenge them.” (203).

That tragedy is repeated in the haunting sequence at Haven. Kel pokes around, and finds the bodies of people she knew. The clerk who took charge, a midwife who worked with Neal. The corporals who lead the convict squads. It’s genuinely traumatizing, and tells’s Pierce’s anti-war stance better than anything else.

Protector of the Small

The Title Drop and Kel

This is the first book in this series to name drop the series title. Actually, it’s the first of her books to do so. When Kel and the rest arrive at Fief Rathhausak they meet Irnai, the seer child. “That’s the one, alright,’ the girl announced. ‘I told you she would come, the Protector of the Small.” (355). Then she lists all of Kel’s companions by suitably prophetic names.

In this case, it’s doubly meaningful. Kel always protects anyone with less power than her, the ‘small’ people in the world. She’s also rescuing a bunch of children, who are literally small. It’s not a pun that Pierce dwells upon, instead diving deeper into the impact of that title. After the killing Blayce, the Chamber of the Ordeal talks to Kel again.

 “Yes, we are finished. Do you think this makes you free of your fate? Asked the Chamber. You are the Protector of the Small. You see the real people in the humans and animals overlooked by your peers. There will always be work for you. Kel scowled. ‘I don’t mind that,’ she retorted. ‘It’s what I mean to do, though I’d never call it by as silly a name as Protector of the Small.” (392).

While Kel disagrees about the title, she accepts the responsibility it carries. It’s intrinsic inside her, though she might waver with the Stormwings at the end. Kel cares about everyone, and she’ll shelter them from tragedy when she can. It’s meaningful that Irnai and the Chamber articulate it. The Chamber, because it set her on the path that led her to Blacye. Irnai, because she came so close to being one of the children that Blayce slaughtered to power the killing devices.

Tobe, Wyldon, and Raoul

These three prove important because they’re the ones that see Kel for the protector she is. The people she protects also see her, but these three articulate it the best. When Kel rescues Tobe from his abusive master she plans to teach him reading, writing, weapons maintenance, and get him new clothes and shoes. Tobe then points something out. “Lady’ he asked quietly. ‘Sounds like you mean to do all manner of things for me. What was you wishful of me doin’ for you?” (41). She always thinks of other people first.

It’s that trait that means Wyldon gives her command of Haven. He takes her down to see the refugees at Giantkiller after explaining her assignment. They talk there for a time, then return to his study. Wyldon then explains why it’s her he sets this task. “The truth is, you are the only one I can trust to do this job properly. … Anyone else will order them about, create more resentment, and turn the place into a shambles.” (70-1). Kel initially balks at Wyldon’s command. She says she wants to fight, that Raoul trained her for battle. After seeing the refugees, and what became of them after their villages were destroyed, and Wyldon’s explanation, she acquiesces. This conversation starts the focus on the tragedy of war, rather than the glory of it.

After Haven’s fall, Raoul bursts into Wyldon’s study. He wants to know why he left Kel where she could slip away, and go after the refugees. “I thought you knew her. Did you believe she would let them take her people?” (263). The phrase ‘her people’ fully defines Kel’s personality. Give her the slightest chance to see a person’s tragedy, then she’ll defend them. It’s what Protector of the Small means.

Tragedy of the Refugees

Convict Soldiers

Half of the soldiers permanently stationed at Haven are ex-convicts. After working in the mines for years, now they’re pressed into military service. A substantial subplot shows how Kel treats them better than their previous leaders. Captain Elbridge, the previous leader of Haven whipped them. He claimed it was the only way to make them do anything. Kel immediately stops doing that, and treats them like other refugees, looking out for them and training them in weapons.

At one point, she takes Neal on a ride, because he was almost at the breaking point. He rants to her about a certain soldier’s health. “There’s no excuse for it, none. … Yes, they’re criminals, but they’re supposed to be soldiers now. You don’t send a man with a hole in his heart to fight! You might as well execute him and have done with it!” (104). The way people treated them before Haven is a tragedy, and it’s not the only one they’ve gone through. One convict soldier knew Kel from before the Crown captured him. He was one of the bandits from Page, and he vouches for Kel to the others.

It’s not just that Captain Elbridge whipped them. It’s not just that they’re in poor physical condition. The tragedy here is what brought them to the border in the first place. In Page and Squire Kel saw the poverty in the realm that drove people to banditry to feed their families. Just as Stenmun’s character provides commentary on mercenary fighters, so do the convict soldiers for the prison pipeline and people drafted into military service.

Fanche, Idrius, and The Remnants of Fief Rathhausak

One of the interesting things about the refugee characters is their commonalities. They all fit into an area of allied but not to Kel and her friends. Fanche proves a problem for Kel initially. She openly dismisses the idea that Kel might be a competent leader. Eventually they talk, and resolve their issues.

“I’m surprised to hear such talk from you’ Fanche grimaced. ‘Why? Because I’m another woman, and everyone knows women are sweet and helpful to each other? Because we’re all sisters … ‘No. Because I expected you to know what it’s like, to be a woman and command. … ‘You know what you command? A killing ground … [The northern nobles] can always replace commoners.” (112).

Fanche and Kel’s relationship showcases intersectional feminism. It shows how two women can both be women, command, but can be treated differently because of class. Fanche lives with the knowledge she can be replaced. Kel lives with the knowledge that she’s always going to be treated less because she’s a woman.

Idrius acts the same way. He’s more blatantly sexist, but he tries to make himself important so he can’t be replaced. Idrius disdains Kel, but ultimately he aids her efforts to protect Haven. The Rathhausak villagers are the same. They’re Scanrans who’ve been abused by Blayce for years, but Kel’s their best chance to get revenge, even though she’s Tortallan.

The reason these relationships succeed at being allied but not comes from the pressure of war. “If we aren’t all united inside these walls, noble and common, soldiers and cooks, male and female, then the enemy will take us all.” (113). Kel pins the point down. Because of the tragedy they’re fighting against, they band together, and learn to mitigate their differences. That’s intersectional feminism at it’s core.


Lady Knight stands out as unique among Pierce’s other Protector of the Small books. While all of these novels dive into intersectional feminism, this one feels grittier. The combination of the subject matter, the inspiration, and the fact that Kel’s an adult now makes it so. But it’s still not grim-dark, in the way that Game of Thrones and it’s legion of imitators are.

Lady Knight remains all about the power of empathy. The power of caring for other human beings, even if they’re your enemies. Kel doesn’t let the Stormwings defile the enemy dead. She doesn’t let Blayce take her people either.

Even the dedication screams this message. Pierce doesn’t talk about the tragedy that destroyed her neighbors’ homes. She talks about their “great sacrifice and kindness”. That’s what Pierce wants us to take away from this, and the rest of The Protector of the Small. It’s more important to be kind to each other than it is to put each other down.


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