Ian Breckon’s debut novel Knight of Swords is a World War II thriller built around withheld information. This in itself is unremarkable. The withholding of critical information, something we commonly refer to as “mystery”, has been a staple tool for novelists for as long as the novel has been a form. After all, writers can’t give all the background on every character, place and plot development all at once; some things must be told sooner than others, and meanwhile there’s the little matter of conveying the story as well.
Breckon, however, takes this necessity and extends it to an extraordinary degree. All his characters seem riven with murky backstories, and their motivations remain ambiguous for much of the novel.
The story centers on an Englishman named Brookes who is fighting in Italy in 1944 alongside the Communists, whose guerilla war against fascist supporters of Mussolini has taken Brookes and his comrades to a remote alpine forest. There, in the first of numerous surprising twists, Brookes leaves the Communists under unexpected circumstances, and is taken in by an Italian nobleman, the Barone di Salussola. The Barone and his family are sitting out the war in the relative safety of their isolated, crumbling castle. For reasons that Brookes doesn’t entirely understand, the Barone offers to shelter him—“hide” might be the better term—and for reasons that the reader is not entirely privy to, Brookes decides to remain there for the winter.
The Barone is a lively, engaging character, vividly portrayed. So are most of the characters in the book. “The Barone exuded calm assurance,” we are told soon after meeting him. “He was slim and angular, well dressed in a charcoal-grey suit and a tie of gold silk weave… A handsome man, though slightly unsettling in the frankness of his gaze.” Recalling a former lover, Brookes broods that “She was twenty-one and her family were all dead and he didn’t want to argue with her, but she made him angry and he hated it… Light freckles across the bridge of her nose, only visible in sunlight.” Breckon skillfully interweaves such details of physical appearance and psychological traits along with Brookes’ own responses to the same, resulting in a series of complex portraits.
With its gothic setting of a crumbling castle in wintertime, inhabited by a spooky (and spooked) array of characters, a history-less protagonist and an air of oppressive gloom, the book sounds like a candidate for some sort of contemporary horror story. Indeed, at one point Odetta, the Barone’s teenage daughter, asks Brookes: “Are you a vampiro?” It’s a question that may have popped into the reader’s own mind sometime during the preceding 150 pages. (I’m not going to answer it here, however.)
Not only are the characters well delineated, but the setting and surroundings are brought vividly into focus, as well. “Beyond the shelter of the gates lay a landscape fantastic in moonlight, billowing white and unstable. Snow had drifted thick against the castle wall…” Elsewhere, “Rain fell, melting the snow in the courtyard, exposing patches of gravel and mud, and all through the castle was the sound of water, snow-melt from the roofs slipping and dripping. Every corridor had its puddled bucket, its soggy wads of old newsprint.”
As winter plods on and the claustrophobia becomes extreme, Brookes’s interactions with his hosts take a variety of new turns, some poorly thought out (on his part, not on the author’s) and all of them leading to deeper entanglements. However, not until spring begins to thaw the surrounding landscape does a degree of clarity and comprehension make itself known. Secrets are revealed, dissembling is sloughed off, and the true gravity of the situation becomes clear.
One’s response to Knight of Swords will depend to a large degree on one’s willingness to submit to the heavyhanded manipulation on offer. It’s obvious from the opening chapters that most, if not all, of the characters are hiding secrets. The reader must decide, then, whether to play along. The point of view is a close third person that remains aligned with Brookes’s consciousness throughout; the reader experiences his thoughts, memories, frustrations and so on, so there is no logical reason why his secrets, which surely must occupy the forefront of his mind, should not be immediately revealed, as well. No reason, that is, except that the author wouldn’t have had a book in that case, or at least would have had a very different one.
For my part, I didn’t mind so much. It’s clear what game the author is playing, but he plays it reasonably well. Knight of Swords flags a bit in the middle going, but the opening chapters are gripping and the final pages build toward an impressively explosive climax. As a World war II thriller imbued with a heavy dose of mystery, the novel does its job.