Finally, Keladry of Mindelin (“Kel” to her friends) has completed her training and been dubbed Lady Knight of Tortall in this final installment of The Protector of the Small quartet. She’s conquered bullies, prejudice, kidnappings, skirmishes, the skepticism of Lord Wyldon, and the terrifying Ordeal; the chamber that all squires must endure if they are to be knighted. She’s all ready to throw her weight into the Scanran War, especially considering the vision that the Chamber of Ordeal granted her: Kel knows the identity and appearance of the man who is behind the monstrous killing machines that have been plaguing her people. Made from the iron-covered bones of giants and geared by the trapped spirits of children, the terrible machines are creating severe losses for Tortall and Kel is eager to be rid of them once and for all.
But her superiors have other ideas, and Kel has readied herself for battle… only to be told that she is instead the commander of a fort of refugees fleeing the borderlands. Kel is bitterly disappointed (not realizing that it is the highest compliment possible for her leadership skills), but in typical Kel style she takes the position with the determination to do the best job possible. Calling her new outpost Haven, she begins the process of leading the people therein with the division of tasks, the resolving of arguments, the training of civilians and the defense of the fort. She’s got her work cut out for her, as some are still not convinced that a female can properly do the job (though this feminist slant is lessoned in this final installment, and in fact most people seem to contest her youth rather than her gender).
But when disaster strikes, Kel faces her most serious decision yet: to obey orders, or to desert the army in order to save the lives she swore to protect — an act of treason that could have her exiled from Tortall, and an act that will lead her straight to the necromancer behind the torturous war-machines…
As a character, Kel is an interesting specimen — an ordinary girl who does extraordinary things. Unlike Pierce’s previous heroines, Kel has no magical powers at her disposal — only her own wit, intelligence and physique. She’s not beautiful, nor is she interested in anything beyond performing her duty, and (for me personally) it took me a while to warm up to her throughout the course of the series, and if I was to meet someone like her in real life, I’m not entirely sure we’d become friends. I admired Kel, but I just couldn’t like her in the some way I liked Daine or Alanna, nor become as involved in her story as I was with The Song of the Lioness and The Immortals quartet. However, it is in this utter ordinariness that Kel finds her greatness as a role model and female heroine.
When faced with a crisis, she is calm. When faced with a difficult decision, she does the right thing. And (most importantly) in the face of insult and abuse, she takes it both patiently and stoically. I’ve read countless stories in which “strong heroines” handle slurs against them by retaliating or withdrawing; but Kel’s reactions to other people whether they be friend or foe is undisputedly right. Quite simply, she’s a fantastic role-model — even more so that Daine and Alanna; what with her commitment, loyalty, discipline, dogged determination, refusal to hold a grudge and seemingly effortless techniques of handling difficult people with courtesy and respect, yet with an iron will behind her polite words. Thank God for Kel.
Once again, loyal readers will be treated to visits from characters that appeared in previous books, both in this series and earlier ones. All of Kel’s friends are back: Neal, Dom, Seaver, Owen, Merric, as well as her animal companions Jump and Peachblossom. The protagonists of the previous Pierce quartet, Daine and Numair, have a large part to play in the protection of Haven, and others such as Alanna, Raoul, Buri, and Prince Roald appear briefly. The romance between Kel and Cleon is brought to a bittersweet conclusion, and we get a satisfactory send-off for Lord Wyldon (Kel’s first antagonist in her goal to become a Lady Knight), but sadly there is nothing but a quick mention of Kel’s gentle maid Lalasa.
To compensate, there is a huge cast of characters to be found in the residents of Haven, whose presence makes up the very core of the book. Kel’s dealings with the temperamental refugees and the relationships she forms with them is crucial to the decision she will come to make, and Pierce does an excellent job of creating the small community with all its flaws and endearments. However, I felt that Kel won over the fort’s people a little too easily (with only small contestation from a nobleman who garners no respect from anyone around him anyway), especially in the case of convicts. These hardened criminals would seem to be the most daunting challenge for Kel, and yet they offer her no resistance whatsoever – in fact she gets the most grief from a middle-aged commoner woman! The lack of any clear mistrust of the part of the civilians, or chance for Kel to prove herself to them and win their respect was an odd exclusion from the book’s plotting.
Also slightly dodgy was Kel’s ‘adoption’ of a young boy named Tobe that she frees from slavery and enlists in her own (much more benevolent) service. It is typical Kel-style to pick up strays on her travels, and it’s a reoccurring theme throughout her story that once Kel rescues somebody, she is rewarded with their devoted service in gratitude (the sparrows, Lalasa, Jump, Owen). This is something that Kel has experienced without fail in all her dealings with the less-fortunate, but I couldn’t help but feel that in real life, not every good deed is rewarded with a new devotee. A change in the system would have been interesting, so although Tobe is a marvelously loveable character, I felt the relationship between him and Kel was a little trite (and I couldn’t help but feel that Kel was building up her own fan-club).
A surprising amount of debate has raged over Kel’s love interest — or more to the point, her lack thereof. Pierce teases us a little, what with mentions of Kel’s attraction to certain members of the opposite sex, but ultimately gives no clear answers on what Kel’s love-life has in store. And for this, I applaud her. Kel’s main goal throughout the quartet has always focused on her knighthood, with any romantic interludes firmly placed as subplots, a refreshing change from other novels in which a female’s adventures are decidedly marked by her love-interest. I wonder why is it so important to so many readers that Kel “end up” with someone by the end of the novel? Kel herself thinks that love and marriage would only get in the way of her true passion: protecting those in need. Girls, you don’t need to land a boyfriend in the course of your adventures to make the trip worthwhile.
Lady Knight is a fitting end to the Protector of the Small quartet, with Kel meeting all her goals for the future, becoming a hero in her own right, and realizing that the only person she had to prove herself to was herself.