Underground Reading: The Red Knight by Miles Cameron
Wednesday, September 04, 2013
This is part of a slightly Quixotic attempt to read and review all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.
The Red Knight (2012) is Miles Cameron's debut novel. The titular Red Knight is a young (20ish) mercenary commander. He's mysterious, and known even to his friends as "captain". Still, he's good at his job and his men ('lances, men-at-arms and archers') are all glad to follow him into battle. The captain's latest gig is garrison duty: taking very good money to defend a remote Abbey against possible incursions from monsters of the Wild. The Wild doesn't scare the captain, nor his men - they've faced beasties before. In fact, if there's a problem with the job, it is the tempting presence of so many lovely novices...
Or, er, not.
It turns out that the Red Knight isn't facing a few monsters, he's facing a lot of them. The critters are all united under the rule of a fell sorcerer. Boglins, irks, wyverns, daemons, bears, trolls and more have all stopped their long-standing tradition of in-fighting and turned into an army. It has been over a generation since the last major incursion of the Wild, and humanity may have forgotten exactly how nasty this sort of war can be.
Tis a storie noble and uh, prithee tis ripe for plucking!
SIEGEPORN. I'm a sucker for it. And, lest the 'murder mystery' setup of the first few chapters of The Red Knight fool you, this book is a blow-by-blow account of a big ol' siege. Lots of knights come to a castle. Lots of monsters come to a castle. SMACKDOWN. The monsters try things, the humans try things. There are big war machines and little war machines and daring midnight raids and trench combat and tunnelling and sneaky patrols and magical whoopsmacking and pretty much all possible forms of combat that could take place between Point A (in the castle) and Point B (not in the castle). This is a book that doesn't shy from action, and Mr. Cameron tells a fight scene extremely well.
As well as being a personal weakness, siegeporn also provides an extremely convenient narrative platform. First, you've got everyone in a tight space: your characters are under pressure, they're thrown together; this gives permission to unnaturally accelerate the character development - romance, revenge, etc. Second, there's a natural clock: everything has to resolve before a) reinforcements arrive or b) you run out of food. Third, everyone has a clear objective. And it isn't just "win", although that provides the basic structure of "two competing sides". Some people want to win more than they want to live, others the reverse. Some folks have empathy for the opponent; some are downright treasonous. Having an obvious us-and-them situation is something the reader can immediately recognise, which allows the author to layer in additional moral complexity as they see fit...
The Red Knight has that "us" and "them": "Man" and the "Wild". And it also has shades of gray. The captain's men are barely more than monsters themselves - they're mercenaries, thieves and criminals and worse. Their relationship with the townsfolk they are protecting is, at best, strained. What happens when they're put in a position where they don't just need to be trusted - but they have to be heroes? Similarly, this is a world with magic - the good type and the bad type. How far will the defenders go to save themselves? Are there lines they can't (or won't) cross? Others see the seige as an opportunity for personal gain or for revenge - can they be relied upon until the bitter end?
Only time - and 650 pages of extraordinarily dense prose - will tell.
Yea, verily. Forsooth spake upon us the dread bits.
I'm going to divide this into two parts. First, The Red Knight does stuff that is generically frustrating. Second, I'll focus (in great depth) on one particular issue - the overabundance of characters.
Part the First: Stuff thou shalt not do in epick phantasie novelles
Thou shalt not assume the reader knows the backstory. If it ain't on the page, we don't know about it - which makes it hard to care. This particular problem rears its head several times in The Red Knight, a book that insists upon delivering dramatic revelations that, well, aren't. It assumes the reader has an in-depth knowledge of the world's history and politics. Similarly, "exciting" discoveries that revolutionise the worlds' magic system are less thrilling when the book has yet to even establish the status quo.
Anachronism: thou shalt pick a side. The Red Knight makes an effort to be as detailed and accurate as possible as to the characters' clothing, armor, tactics and weaponry. This is not my thing, but if you like your fiction with sabatons (a lot), bassinets, cotes, chamfrons, surcotes, maille and the occasional vambrace, I can accept that's a matter of taste.* And, for the most part, Mr. Cameron is extremely consistent - getting armor on is a hellish task, weapons have the heft and weight of enormous chunks of metal, carts and horses and squiring duties and such are all rendered in (slightly ponderous) detail. This all adds up to an impressive devotion to accuracy - which is immediately squandered when someone says "There are more things in heaven and earth than there are in your philosophy" (438) or, even worse, "Get a room" (271). Anachronism or over-wrought historical detail: you can't have it both ways.
Thou shalt limit thy magic. Magic doesn't have to make sense - that's what makes it magic, after all. But if anything is possible, without cost or repercussion, it raises a lot of hairy questions - which is why most high fantasy magic systems come with arbitrary limits. The Red Knight flirts with a few familiar limitations: magic is exhausting, it is frowned upon, it is ungodly, no one knows how to use it. But each of those boundaries is abandoned in turn: the characters find sources of inexhaustible strength, everyone's fine with magic (including the religious) and there's plenty of instruction to hand. By the end of the book, more characters have access to magic (excuse me: the ability to weave "aethereal phantasms") than don't. By the end of the book, when one character starts a fire the old-fashioned way (sticks, tinder, etc), he's immediately challenged why he didn't just do it with magic. His response? "Habit." You need more than that to keep your deus ex machina in check.
Thou shalt not introduce a resurrection mechanic. A corollary to the above, I suppose. But as soon as the first character comes bounding back from the grave, all the book's tension disappears. If death is to mean something, it has to be final. The Red Knight introduces no less than four loopholes: miraculous healers, faeries, an angel-being thing and spells that fake death. In one instance, a character is resurrected by faeries. Special? Hardly. Another character mentions that the same thing happened to his gran and it really threw her off her stride for a few months. If your world treats "resurrection" like "LASIK", it makes character death a little less striking.
These are, as noted above, common issues across many epic fantasies. The Red Knight just happens to stumble across, well, all of them...
Part the Second: in which the scourging eye of the reviewer is turnt upon the texte itselffe
GOOD GOD THIS BOOK IS LONG. As I noted above, 650 pages is actually misleading - the book is laid out like a brick of densely-worded A4. Kindle locations aren't the most accurate way of measuring a book, but at least they give us some point of comparison. At 14,500, The Red Knight is twice the length of Angelmaker (7,300) and the same length as Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers combined (14,800). That's big.
Some of this length is simply down to repetition. The Red Knight plays same conversations over and over again (the captain hates God, the Abbess is mysterious, Harmodius the wizard does something thinky, Prudentia the magical statue-person says something in italics...). Nor does having four denouements give the book a punchy ending. But the real culprit here is the fact that The Red Knight has thirty-five point of view characters, many of which only exist to give the same information over and over again.
To help sort them out, I've gone with the time-honoured critical mechanism of "marry, shag, push off a cliff".
Marry - characters with whom I'd happily spend a book:
1) The captain: If The Red Knight were only the captain's point of view, it would still be longer than most novels and it'd be a damn sight better. The captain is definitely a Chosen One (mysterious birth, everyone is focused on him and an unparalleled champion of both magic and swordplay), but he's fairly compellingly written. A little too much of his dialogue is built around his whining (GOD HATES ME AND I HATE GOD) and his ludicrous non-romance, but, when he's doing captain-y mercenary things, he's a genuinely fascinating character. Less moping about and more charging trolls, please.
[Oh, incidentally, on that romance: the captain spots a hot nun. He uses magic to follow her through the abbey, waits until she's alone then squashes her against a wall and kisses her (he's in full armor and carrying his sword, by the way). He puts her down, even though he's convinced that "she wants it", because he's a little worried she might mistake him for a rapist. What with the "being armed to the teeth, chasing her through her home and cornering her in a remote place so he can grab and kiss her" thing, I can see how that'd be a problem. Awful.]
Shag - characters with whom I'd spend a page or two:
2) Peter: A man that joins the Sassog - the world's Pict-equivalents (because this is epic fantasy so Pict-analogues are necessary). He's definitely one of the more interesting characters, and his plot-line: from slave to free man to warrior to... something more... is one of the book's best. Peter's has absolutely no relevance to the core plot, but it is still fun to read.
3) Mag the Seamstress: One of the things The Red Knight does extremely well is how it talks about the tense relationship between professional soldiers and the ordinary people that they "protect". Mag provides a really interesting counterpoint to the Red Knight. He makes military decisions; she shows how they impact upon the little people. What happens when farmers have to abandon their home? Or they see their land destroyed in a siege? Or mercenaries start with the wandering eyes (and hands)... She becomes a major character by the end of the book, more concerned about the Big Picture than the human detail, but, for the first half at least, she provides a fascinating perspective.
4) Harmodius: Hmmm. The King's royal wizard is actually teetering on the edge of the cliff. Harmodius is important to explaining the world's magical system (such as it is). And he has his own connection with Thorn, the big bad, that almost constitutes a vital subplot. Plus, there are some cool wizardy fight scenes. That said, all Harmodius' helpful exposition comes from conversation with the captain - so why not just stay with the captain's point of view? And his creepy lust for the Queen is uncomfortable. We'll keep you for now, Harmodius, but I hope you memorised featherfall.
5) The Abbess: ... is given short shrift. One of the most interesting, intelligent people, she barely gets a paragraph or two. (And her 'reveal' is ridiculous, as her dread secret is that she's connected to people/events that we don't know or care about.) Arguably, she doesn't tell us anything we don't already know from the captain or Harmodius, but she has a very different view (and motivation). One of the few POV characters that needs more space.
6) The bear: A bear. This book has three dozen point of view characters. Including a bear. And, you know what? The bear does a better job of portraying the balance between "Man" and "Wild" than any of the other characters, and it does it succinctly, without adding another extraneous subplot. Keep the bear. Why not?
Push off a cliff - as it says:
7) Ser John Crayford: We've already got the captain. The captain is a knight that's in the thick of things and seeing key events as they unfold first-hand. Why do we need that again? Shove.
8 - 11) Ser Mark Wishard, Prior Ser Mark Wishart:, Ser Gawin, Galahan Acon: As above. Absolutely nothing new here. Shove.
12 - 13) Ranald and Hector Lachlan: As above, but also Scottish analogues. Shove.
14 - 15) Ser Gaston and de Vrailly As above, but French analogues. Kind of have their own plots, but they don't come to anything. Le shove.
16) Ser Alcaeus: As above, but from the Holy Roman Empire. There to set up the sequel and has no other relevance. Shove!
17 - 19) Bad Tom, Gelfred and Sauce: The Red Knight's lieutenants - interesting characters from his point of view, but have nothing new to say. Sauce is the only female character that's not a nun or the Queen (see below). She is, however, put back into her place at the end of the book - 649 pages of being a warrior, 1 page of being a sex object. Whew.
20) The King: As above. Too little, too late - by the time we have the King's point of view, he's just another knight in the field. Royal shove.
21) Michael: The captain's squire. By definition, he goes everywhere the captain does and sees exactly what the captain sees. His point of view adds less than nothing, because it largely consists of conversations with the captain. Shove!
22) Michael's diary: In which we use italics to recap everything we already read in the previous chapter. You've got to be kidding me. Shove it with fire.
23) Amy's Hob: Brilliant name, but merely a random man-at-arms in the mercenary company. Absolutely no point. Shove.
24) Harold Redmede: Dude we meet on the road. Seriously?! Shove.
25) Bill Redmede: Brother of road-dude. Why not give the road itself a narrative? "I was dusty. Knights rode on me." Shove.
26) Gerald Random: Well-named. Shove.
27 - 28) Mogan and Thurkan: Unimportant Wild creatures. They tell us nothing we don't learn from Thorn (see below), and more importantly, nothing we either want or need to know. Shove.
29) Father Henry: Father Henry's role in the siege is the least surprising plot twist in the entire book; made even less surprising by the fact that he's a point of view character and his "secret" is given away immediately. Shove.
30) Amicia: The novice / love interest. She should be a major character with a plot arc of her own, perhaps something that explores her mysterious past and her magical powers and her half of the "romance". Instead, she's a pretty lady that stares off battlements. Presumably she gets more space in the sequel, but, for now? Shove.
31) Sister Miram: Really? Instead of giving more time to the Abbess or more character to Amicia, we waste time with another, completely pointless nun!? Sorry sister. Shove.
32) Kaitlin: Young woman in town. In case the role of women (nun, wife or whore) hasn't yet been firmly established by all the other characters, we get Kaitlin considering all three. Shove.
33) Edward: Random apprentice. His only purpose is to set up denouement #2 and part of the sequel. Huge shove.
34) Thorn: Thorn's the big bad, so theoretically, he provides a useful perspective. But what does he actually add? Sympathy with the Wild? He's not really that empathetic - the bear does that better. A different point of view on events? Yes, but he doesn't actually see anything different to what any other character sees, so it is actually just repetition. Moreover, Thorn's stature is actually lessened by his perspective. The other characters see him as this sinister force of godlike intelligence (Harmodius wangs on about Thorn's smarts all the time). Then, when we do cut to Thorn and see that he's just... you know... "so-so"... it lets everyone down. Off the cliff, Thorn. It is for your own good.
35) The Queen: NUKE IT FROM ORBIT. A farcical, terrible character. The Queen is defined by her beauty - we know this because of her first scene, where she stands up, naked, and then admires herself in a mirror. We are then reminded of this in every subsequent scene as people leer at her. The first paragraph of every Queen POV chapter describes how she looks and what she's wearing - from "a long shift of sheer linen and silk hose with red leather garters" (255) to her silk dress so flimsy that we "can see [her] tits right through it" (337) to "a borrowed chain shirt... both martial and quite attractive" (557). The Queen also "stamps her feet" and has too many pairs of shoes. Because that's what girls do. Shove!
Goode lorde, wrappe itte uppe alreadee!
3,000 words later, it seems like I'm pretty dissatisfied with The Red Knight. Well, I am.
My frustration stems from the simple fact that buried within this oversized tome there lurks a pretty good - perhaps even excellent - story. There's a tense siege, some interesting interplay between knights and commoners, brutal, well-choreographed combats, and even a bit of insightful social commentary about war and the men and women who wage it for a living. In fact, if The Red Knight were solely about the titular Red Knight, it could've easily been one of the year's best fantasy debuts. Instead, I found this book almost impossible to penetrate, protected as it is by the vambrace of redundant perspectives, the sabatons of irritating sexual politics and and the maille of repetitive plot points.
*Vambrace. A trigger word - if I see it in a book, I know this is something that's going to bore the crap out me. I will forgive two authors for the use of "vambrace". KJ Parker would make vambraces the subject of a three chapter sequence, in which the reader would explore the construction of a vambrace in exhaustive detail, ultimately leading to the understanding that a vambrace is a metaphor for the protagonist's past and/or the nature of being. And China Miéville would use it in a phrase like "the eschatological vambrace" which would make me nod sagely, even as I went looking for the dictionary.
**re: the American cover. No dragons appear in this book. Wyverns, yes. Even a wyrm. No dragons. Just saying.