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Friday, November 16, 2012

"The Red Knight" by Miles Cameron (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION:  One of the most expected fantasy series debuts of the year, The Red Knight by Miles Cameron, introduces us to a bleak and brutal world where life is cheap but things, especially well made ones like armor and swords are expensive. With an extensive cast of humans and various races of the Wild, a developed historical and religious background and a dual magic based on the opposition of light/order and nature/green/chaos, the series promises to be a standout epic fantasy for the ages.

"Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild.

Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern's jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men - or worse, a company of mercenaries - against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.

It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it.

The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he's determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery, it's just another job. The abby is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can't deal with.

Only it's not just a job. It's going to be a war. . ."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  "The Captain of Albinkirk forced himself to stop staring out his narrow, glazed window and do some work.
He was jealous. Jealous of a boy a third of his age, commanding a pretty company of lances. Riding about. While he sat in a town so safe it was dull, growing old

Don’t be a fool, he told himself. All those deeds of arms make wonderful stories, but the doing is cold, wet and terrifying. Remember?
He sighed. His hands remembered everything – the blows, the nights on the ground, the freezing cold, the gauntlets that didn’t quite fit. His hands pained him all the time, awake or

The Captain of Albinkirk, Ser John Crayford, had not started his life as a gentleman. It was a rank he’d achieved through pure talent.
For violence."

The Red Knight takes place in the country of Alba at the North-West edge of civilization; while there is a manned wall supposedly protecting it from the Wild, the fact is that humanity's footprint in the northwestern parts of Alba is very low, with only the outpost abbey of Lissen Carak and its subordinated villages and farms situated on a site of power that belonged to the daemons - the highest sentient life of the Wild - not long ago.

In a famed battle a generation ago, the previous king, his court mage Harmodious and the combined knights, bowmen and infantry army of Alba decisively defeated the Wild and set it back to what people believed would be a sustainable peace for a long time. But the Wild has been creeping back towards Lissen Carak, the daemons want their old place back and the wild magus Thorn decides to help them.

When a foul murder happens on a farm near Lissen Carak, the powerful Abbess contracts the up-and-coming mercenary company led by the young and mysterious Red Knight who has recently made his name in continental wars. 

In the capital of Harndon, the King prepares a tournament, exiles a braggart knight and lets a trusted guardsman go and seek his fortune to be able to marry a court lady, Queen Desiderata is her usual flirtatious self, Harmodious is lost in contemplation, while ambitious merchant Gerald Random prepares the biggest convoy of his career to go to the famed market fair at the abbey.

And to add to the mix,
Jean de Vrailly an arrogant, rich and powerful knight of Galle is told by an angel to come - with a powerful army of his own of course - to Alba for great deeds, a Moreean slave joins the Iroquis-like "outwaller' tribes of the wild, the freemen "jacks" also of the wild prepare to help Thorn and the daemons in their war and strike back at the hated class society of Alba and the Lachlan drover clan of the northeast is taking their cattle to Lissen Carak and the fair too!

Seems complicated, well it is and it takes a while to get the hang of the big picture, but do not worry as the pages turn by themselves and the main action following the Red Knight, his mercenaries and their fight against the Wild is straightforward at least for a while...

The Red Knight tries and mostly succeeds to combine three things:

A very historical fiction approach to medieval fantasy with detailed realistic descriptions of the society of those times, as for example appearing in authors like Maurice Druon and Zoe Oldenbourg. The writing is very unsentimental, quite brutal on occasion and is much closer to historical fiction than to fantasy even of the "gritty" kind.

A magical system based on the power of the wild nature, green rather than dark so to speak and embodied in various creatures and people versus the power of the sun, light embodied in the Church and people; this system reminds one strongly of CS Friedman's Cold Fire while the memory chamber approach of the hermetic magic also reminds of KJ Parker's "rooms".

A strong military component as most of the book is war; this gets a bit tiring at the end when slaughtering "boglins" by the thousands becomes tedious, but it has a lot of great moments where the combination of medieval weapons and tactics with modern such given by sorcery - eg aerial bombardment by wyverns, but much more - brings something new to the table; this part is done very well, only it is a bit too long in the end.

The structure of The Red Knight is in short chunks from multiple POV's and it works mostly well with narrative flowing, though I can easily see it leading to confusion especially in the beggining where character after character and setting after setting are introduced. There are a ton of impressive characters of all kinds, most notably the title hero, the mysterious to start Red Knight about whom we find out in due time most everything about parentage and upbringing with the rest being implied, the real bad boy "Bad Tom" Lachlan, the two sorcerers Thorn and Harmodius, The Abbess, Queen Desiderata, some local and foreign knights as noted above, a few daemons, the escaped slave who becomes a member of the Sossag one of the "outwallers" Iroquis like tribes and not least a wise and very powerful Dragon.

Where I have some reservations about the novel is in its balance and integration of these quite disparate elements, so the book is occasionally less than the sum of its parts. Also as in most fantasies, the separation of the main hero and his love interest seems artificial, however needed for narrative momentum.

The ending of The Red Knight is actually superb as it goes beyond solving the main storyline and setting up the next book The Fell Sword, while it brings new main players into focus and has a "conversation" for the ages.

Overall, The Red Knight - top 25 novel of mine - is an excellent debut that I hope will find its audience as it combines a few things that usually stay separate in various genres. I am convinced that the technical aspects will only get better as the series progresses, so give it a chance and I think you will be won by the intricate story and sophisticated world building the author put so much thought into.


Ryan said...

Great review. Thanks for continually keeping me so well informed.

I'm very much looking forward to The Red Knight. It has a lot of elements that have me very interested. I'm eagerly awaiting this release.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words!

Amanda Frank said...

This looks like an interesting book and I might have to pick it up! I'm finishing up a pretty great book now called "Three Fugitives" by Nat Howler, it's part of the Six Stones Trilogy. You can check out him and the book on the website Thanks for the review and suggestion!

John said...

Nice review Liviu,i pretty much felt the same about the book,hoping that book 2 comes out next year.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words.

The author is busily writing the Fell Sword - at last update yesterday, he was on page 525 or so - so end of 2013, early 2014 is reasonable

Unknown said...

I have to say I enjoyed this one as well. Had a bit of everything for everyone. Definitely in my top reads.


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