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Monday, February 24, 2014

"Traitor's Blade" by Sebastien de Castell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded, and Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards for a nobleman who refuses to pay them. Things could be worse, of course. Their employer could be lying dead on the floor while they are forced to watch the killer plant evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that’s exactly what’s happening…

Now a royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world. A carefully orchestrated series of murders that began with the overthrow of an idealistic young king will end with the death of an orphaned girl and the ruin of everything that Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have fought for. But if the trio want to foil the conspiracy, save the girl, and reunite the Greatcoats, they’ll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug, and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor’s blade."

After an ok'ish start on the light side that gave a taste of the picaresque aspect of the novel, Traitor's Blade started getting darker and more interesting so it quickly pulled me in. By its end, the book turned out to be an excellent read - powerful narrative and many twists and turns of which some major ones are clear from long before, but they are still very entertaining. 

Highly imaginative world building which has a little "iffiness" factor true as some things happen too quickly and of course our heroes escape quite a few deathly situations in sometimes unlikely ways, but that doesn't really matter given the rest of the goodies of the novel. Also for once a realistic view of "knights", chivalry and a medieval like society that reads real - brutal, no illusions, no mercy, the powerful oppressing the less powerful and those oppressing the weak

Narrated in alternate present and past by Falcio val Mond, former First Cantor of the Greatcoats - both Cantor and Greatcoat have definite meanings here - who now a few years after his king's death when the high nobility rebelled against his reforms and King Paelis refused to allow a civil war and ordered Falcio to surrender his highly trained Greatcoats in return for amnesty, surrender that has the survivors now called traitors, tries to keep his last promise to the king and find the treasures the king has scattered throughout the realm and use them to restore a semblance of justice as opposed to the unending brutality of the nobility.

While a great fighter and having a highly developed sense of justice and morality, Falcio is not the sharpest intellect around, so he and his two companions, first sword Kest and first archer Brasti, kind of bumble in and out of mortal peril, are outwitted and manipulated at every turn by nefarious schemers, but in true picaresque fashion, manage to survive despite the odds.

Here is Falcio after killing a renowned knight in a quick battle:

"I looked out at the night sky and the stars that winked at us as if they were all in on some great joke. ‘Five years ago, after the Ducal Army took Castle Aramor, they killed our King and hauled his corpse up to the top of the castle. They mounted his head on a pike. Some men cheered, some men looked away.’ I took another swig of my wine. ‘And some men just laughed.’

‘So Lynniac was there, was he?’

‘Lynniac was there,’ I said. ‘Commander of a division of Knights. I didn’t recognise him at first, but when he was pointing that crossbow at me and he started laughing …’

Feltock bit the inside of his cheek. Then he said, ‘And you think you remember everyone who was there that day?’

I thought about it for a moment. ‘Not everyone,’ I replied. Feltock was looking at me intently, trying to see if I knew, if I did remember. More trouble than it will be worth, I thought, but I was a little drunk and a little tired so I said, ‘But since you’re asking, yes, General Feltock, I remember you.’

Feltock’s eyes went wide for a moment, but then he gave a bitter laugh. ‘Not “General”,’ he said. ‘Not for a few years now.’

We drank some more in silence.

‘So,’ he said, uncrossing his legs with a crack. ‘Are you gonna come for me next, boy?’
I sighed. ‘No.’

‘Why not? I was there, wasn’t I? I was one of those what took down your King, wasn’t I? So what’s the difference between me and Lynniac?’

‘You didn’t laugh.’

He just looked at me for a while and then said, ‘Huh.’ Then he stood up and started walking back to the wagons.

Why “Captain” Feltock?’ I asked when he was a few paces away. ‘Why aren’t you a general any more?’

Feltock turned and gave me a sour grin. He tossed the rest of his wineskin back to me. ‘Because, boy, when they put the King’s head on that pole, I forgot to laugh.’"

In the episodes taking place in the past, we see Falcio's journey from boy to young and happily married farmer, to man on a vengeance quest, to justiciar in the king's elite Greatcoats, to his last order in the name of the king and the slow revelations of that thread are added to the mix well indeed.

Magic is subtle here and nobody is necessarily as he or she seems, while the main characters - villains and heroes of both genders - are in the best fantasy tradition. A great ending which promises much more and a series that already by its first volume vaulted to the top level, so I really want more.

Overall Traitor's Blade is the first "new" fantasy of 2014 that met and even exceeded my expectations and for the reasons above takes its place in my top 25 of the year to date. 

Here is one more taste of Falcio's narration at a crucial moment when he finds a new and unknown group of "Greatcoats" - the now quite missed traveling justices that kept the nobility's abuses in check - that may or may not be what they seem:

‘He can withdraw if he wishes,’ Lorenzo said soothingly, ‘but any man or woman who runs from a fight is no Greatcoat and has no business here with us.’

I laughed. ‘“Runs from a fight?” You child. We run from fights all the time – we run from any fight we can get away from. “Judge Fair, Ride Fast, Fight Hard” – fighting is always our last resort.’

It was Lorenzo’s turn to sneer. ‘Well, perhaps that explains why you ran so quickly the last time there was a fight worth
winning! Perhaps that’s why there’s no King and no Greatcoats any more. Perhaps we –’ and here he turned and swept his arms out wide – ‘perhaps we plan on fighting, not running!’

Aline put a hand on my arm. ‘Let’s go, Falcio. I think we should go now.’
I shrugged her arm off.

‘You’re a fool, Lorenzo, and so is anyone here who listens to this tripe. You think you’re going to take forty men and women and fight an armoured division of Knights? In plate-mail? The army that came for the King had a thousand men on horseback. You think you can fight your way out of that?’ I felt the sting of irony myself, since I had tried very hard to convince the King to let me do that very thing.

‘You know, First Cantor, you look tired. Perhaps you need to rest, and dream sweet dreams of the past, while younger and better men do the fighting for you. Or perhaps –’ he turned and smiled wolfishly – ‘perhaps you’d like to show us all a thing or two about how you used to do it in the old days?’

‘Come on, Falcio,’ Aline said. ‘This isn’t your fight.’

But she was wrong: these people were calling themselves Greatcoats. I had devoted my life to this cause, and a hundred and forty-three others had done the same. We had fought and bled and died for this cause. My King had lost his head for this cause.

Lorenzo was right about one thing, though, I was tired. I was tired of Dukes and Knights, and even the common folk calling us ‘Trattari’ and ‘tatter-cloaks’ and worse. I was tired of the memory of what we had tried to do for the world being sullied. More than anything, I was tired of running and hiding. I knew I should just leave with Aline, try and find somewhere else to hide. I could practically hear Brasti shouting in my ear, telling me not to put my anger in front of my reason again. He was right.

But I’d be thrice-damned before I let these fools, these arrogant sons-of-bitches, put the final death to the memory of the Greatcoats.


Sean said...

Added to my reading list. Thanks.


Mark said...

I finished reading this the other day - i won a copy from Goodreads - and like you thought the start wasn't the greatest but I did enjoy it. Will definitely be keeping an eye out for book two.


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