Once a Knight by Christina Dodd
(Harper, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-108455-7
I must confess that I have always had a soft spot for a sensitive man who is a little down on his luck. Men like Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive," Liam Neeson in "Rob Roy," or Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon" all really appealed to me. (Of course, it was the character they played, not the handsome actors themselves...absolutely.)

Christina Dodd's newest book Once a Knight features her own version of a legendary knight who has had a run of bad luck. Sir David of Radcliffe is a household name throughout England. With his reputation as King Henry III's greatest champion, just his name is enough to strike fear in the hearts of most men.

Lady Alisoun of George's Cross desperately needs a champion. Someone seems to be stalking her and there has been an attempt on her life. To quell the rising fear of her people for her safety, she hires Sir David of Radcliffe as her bodyguard. Alisoun, "the oldest virgin widow in England," wants her independence, her castle and her money without having to marry again.

But this is where this original story takes a delicious turn. Sir David, having recently suffered a rather humiliating defeat, is no longer the king's champion and his warrior skills are rather rusty. In an age when fighting is a young man's sport, David is no longer young. He desperately needs this job because his own small castle is falling apart and David and his young daughter are penniless and close to starving.

At first, the decline of his skills doesn't seem to matter because David sees no evidence of any danger to Alisoun. But it soon becomes apparent that the dangers are real and David may not be up to the challenge of protecting Alisoun and her people.

Although he is captivated by Alisoun's tall, redheaded, regal beauty, David makes no secret of his attraction to Alisoun's castle and her wealth. And he realizes that if he can convince her to wed him, all his problems will be solved. Alisoun is willing to use David for her needs, (including fathering a child) but marriage is out of the question.

What I enjoyed most about Once a Knight was that the characters were unusual, interesting and human. Alisoun's onerous responsibilities seem to have made her a stern, humorless woman. But David's charm, wit and physique reveal to her that she may have been missing out on some of the fun in life. And David is not your typical hero. He's not always sure of the right thing to do and sometimes makes the wrong decisions. And like most medieval knights, he has a difficult time taking orders from a woman.

Although this is a serious tale about honor and loyalty and vows to old friends, there are some delightful, light-hearted moments in this book. Just wait until you read about David's numerous battle injuries! He never boasts about his past prowess or the results of his legendary battles, but when questioned about the origin of one of his many old injuries, this modest warrior simply states, "His widow has since remarried."

I did wonder why there was no explanation given for Alisoun's virgin-widow status, but not too much. I was too busy chuckling at David's amusing responses to Alisoun's plans. (And wondering why these two people seemed to prefer a table to a bed!)

In the end, I decided that most of us would prefer a real man like David to a legend any day.

--Dede Anderson

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