Just when you think there are no new twists to be found on the Arthurian mythos, along comes Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which takes place among feuding street gangs in a contemporary British city.
Our narrator is Art who, along with his hot-headed brother Mordec, is a member of the (mostly mixed-race) Knight Crew, rival gang to the (white) Saxons. Tensions escalate between the two gangs when, in the heat of a fight, Art fatally stabs a member of the Saxons – but it’s OG, the leader of the Knight Crew who ends up being held by the police, leaving a power vacuum. Myrtle, the strange old ‘baglady without a bag’, has prophesied that one day, Art will become ‘king’ – and, in due course, he does. But if Art wants to find happiness with his girl, Quin, he’ll have to deal with Mordec’s ambitions; Lance, the dashing white knight who later appears on the scene; and the Saxons, who are out for revenge…
Let’s be clear at the start that Knight Crew is not an Arthurian fantasy – it’s not a case of gangs throwing magic at each other, or anything like that (the only ‘spells’ in the book are periods of imprisonment). Rather, the purpose of the Arthurian references is to dictate the shape of the book. This goes far beyond superficial naming, and into the heart of the issues with which Singer is concerned (for example, knives gain a similar significance to the Crew as Excalibur has as a symbol of Arthur), not to mention the trajectory of the plot (there are signals throughout that all ends in tragedy; this point is probably laboured too much, but still I didn’t foresee what actually happens).
The Arthurian elements also give the story something of a timeless quality – not entirely so, as we’re recognisably in contemporary Britain; but there’s a sense that Knight Crew takes place in its own little world. The city in which it is set is not named – it’s probably London, but the lack of any recognisable place names generates a feel of somewhere to one side of reality. This works well with the bold strokes of the plot; but I was also going to say that it acts as a cushion, even if only in a small way, from the harsh reality of the gangs’ world.
Ah, but it’s not that simple, because the life of the gangs creates its own sense of being in a discrete bubble of reality. The vast majority of the book takes place ‘inside’ the Knight Crew: when the plot intersects with life outside, it is like stepping into another world. One of the key themes of Knight Crew is the power of words to make change, to shape reality; and we see this very clearly in the book – the Crew’s street argot is a way in which they structure their identity, but it proves inadequate for Art as he struggles to come to terms with what he has done: ‘murdered is not the same as merked [street slang for killing]. It’s more serious. More dreadful.’ The contrast between the street language Art uses in dialogue and his more conventional narrative voice is symbolic of the emotional transformation he undergoes over the course of the novel.
Art himself is a pleasingly rounded character, very much a flawed hero. He recognises that he has done wrong, and does his best to change, but never becomes squeaky-clean (he’s not above petty jealousy of Lance, for example). Not all of the characterisation is as sharp, which is fine to an extent (the Knight Crew are all about action, not reflection), but it does leave some of the minor characters hard to tell apart.
I haven’t really mentioned the prose yet; and I should, because Singer writes some beautiful passages – such as this expression of the burgeoning love between Art and Quin [edited slightly to avoid a spoiler]:
I took her then, took her in my arms and pressed my lips over hers as if I could take some of that sorrow and that joy in mouth. She gave herself to me, folded into me, all arms and softness and wanting and no division at all, and that lit something in both of us and we were mad and passionate for a while, tumbling on the earth beside the canal…and under the stars…
I also haven’t gone into much detail about the plot, and don’t really feel a need to. It seems to me that the details of Knight Crew’s plot are less important than its broader arcs; after all, the book draws on one of the most fundamental of all British stories, a story which deals in archetypes. Nicky Singer has brought together the old and new to craft a fable that demonstrates the enduring relevance of even the most apparently well-worn legends, whilst asking questions about the world in which we live today.
I understand that Knight Crew is currently being adapted into an opera, to be staged next year. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about opera, but I can see this working well; it’s the kind of story that could be told well in song. It’ll be interesting to see the results, anyway.