Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell
Tuesday, June 09, 2015
And we're off! This is the first of ten reviews, as I'll be going through the shortlists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the complete list here, as well as a bit about the awards, the books and the criteria I'm using. Voting concludes on 17 July.
Pretend, just for a moment, that you have attained your most deep-seated desire. Not the simple, sensible one you tell your friends about, but the dream that's so close to your heart that even as a child you hesitated to speak it out loud.
Thus begins Traitor's Blade (2014), and the opening lines do an excellent job of capturing the novel's overall tone. These wistful, deliberately florid lines are clearly a set-up for a joke - and, indeed, by the end of the first page, the romantic vision is shattered by a crude interruption. But there's also something genuine in these lines - the speaker might be overwrought and a tiny bit snide, but there's a truth at the core. A real dream, hiding behind sarcasm.
And thus goes Traitor's Blade - a novel that cloaks itself in satire, but has a firmly romantic heart. It is a tricky balance: not everyone can have their tongue in their cheek and their heart on their sleeve, but Traitor's Blade accomplishes it with surprising skill. Not unlike, of course, The Three Musketeers, which clearly inspired this novel in many ways. Dumas' novel is perhaps better known for its romantic side - the swordplay and the sacrifice. But unlike, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers is a deeply, wonderfully snarky book, one that very rarely takes itself (or its protagonists) seriously.
D'Artagnan is, well, dumb - and meets his friends due to a combination of hot-headed pride and ridiculous circumstance. The musketeers are vain, rude and deceitful; before they fight for their King and Queen, they brawl to escape bar bills and most of their 'combat' is merely abusing their own servants. They are undoubtedly brave, but Dumas also points out the ludicrousness of their lives. They are heroes, yes, but they're also anti-social, ill-fitting, emotionally-damaged disasters. De Castell follows in this vein, and Traitor's Blade is all the better for it.
The 'musketeers 'in de Castell's novel are Kest, Brasti and Falcio. They are three of the remaining Greatcoats, an organisation of travelling magistrates, investigators and heroes-on-call that was founded by the King... and then died when said monarch was overthrown. Life's tough for a fallen hero, and the kingdom's new rulers, the Dukes, haven't made it any easier. The Greatcoats make for excellent scapegoats for all that goes wrong, and our protagonists are having a tough time making ends meet.
To add further complexity, all three are still bound by oaths to their dead King. Falcio, our primary protagonist, has sworn to find the King's 'Charoites' ('jewels' - and if you don't figure it out before Falcio does, I'm very disappointed in you). That geas, plus, his unceasing commitment to the King's Laws (honor, fair play, rights for peasants, etc. etc) means that he can never just get on with the business of surviving - instead, he keeps trying to save the day, throwing himself headlong into danger over and over again.
To further the comparison to The Three Musketeers, Traitor's Blade is a fairly peripatetic novel. We begin with a political scheme, one that's rapidly derailed by murder (with our heroes being framed, of course). Then we're on the road as hired guards for a caravan. Then we're bodyguarding a noblewoman. Then we're rescuing another noblewoman. Then we're in a war. Then we're... etc. Falcio is either the luckiest or unluckiest of men. Sure, he's constantly fighting for his life, but, despite being swatted hither and yon like a low fantasy tennis ball, his overarching quest always seems to progress. That is to say: this is a book that relies very heavily on circumstance and convenience. Even if Falcio, Brasti and Kest aren't planning for their future, the author is.
Fortunately, Traitor's Blade is also extremely fond of swashbuckling distractions. Whenever there's a moment where the reader might stop to think that "wait, that doesn't make any sense at all...", someone attacks. Hold up, how did that magic spell work? GUARDSMEN ATTACK. If this is all being recounted to a scribe, does that mean that... PIKES! And, wait, why is it so important that you join this particular caravan? I CHALLENGE YOU TO A SERIES OF DUELS. Is an absolute monarchy really better than some sort of devolved feudalis... BAREHANDED DEATHBRAWL. Just one second, nothing in this city makes sens...NINJA AMBUSH! And wait, if you knew that all along, why didn't you just stop this earli... CAVALRY CHARGE! Etc, etc. If there's a moral to Traitor's Blade - both for its characters and the construction of the book itself - it is simply 'fortune favors the bold'. There's nothing that can't be solved, explained away or simply ignored by drawing your sword and rushing straight ahead.
It certainly helps that the combat is very good - a combination of the oft-cited Dumas and, well, pick a video game of choice. Falcio has a stack of tricks and tactics, everything from shooting swords to berserker mayhem. No fight ever repeats itself, as there's a whole inventory of bizarre items up the Greatcoat's (armored, alchemically-enhanced, secret-pocket-laden) sleeves. Indeed, some of the fights are perhaps a little too video game: the overly-contrived duels are very capital-c-Cool, but also Contrived.
But this - the meandering adventures, the hand-wavey explanations, the Bloodborne combats - is only half the story. That's the fun part: the icing, the isn't-it-neat, the over the topness that lends itself to satire. Traitor's Blade is good, perhaps even very good, because, despite adorning itself in the Greatcoat of 'dumb fun', it has a body of smart, even powerful, storytelling.
Perhaps where that's most obvious is with what we don't see. We don't learn all the other Greatcoats' geases (geasi? geese?!), we don't see Kest's ultimate duel, we don't learn the history of Falcio and Brasti, we don't learn how Falcio and Kest duelled in the past, we don't know what happened to Kest as a child, we don't learn what the other Greatcoats are up to, etc. etc. - all of this is there, alluded to, and clearly relevant, but de Castell wisely withholds extraneous exposition in favour of keeping the plot moving and the mysteries intact. Moreover, much of the exposition we do get isn't 'plot-focused' as much as it is character-building: the origins of Falcio's anger - and his loyalty to the King. It doesn't matter how things happened, or even why, as long we care about the people involved. And, from the few, deadly serious, glimpses of Falcio's past, the reader very quickly understands the personal stakes involved.
The result? A book that's silly - occasionally overly so - but also surprisingly, wonderfully earnest. Falcio, Kest and Brasti are awash in goofiness, dirt and grime, the humor, crudeness and banality of day to day reality, but... they are also capable of transcendent moments of heroism. Traitor's Blade provides swashbuckling fan service, and has fun along the way, but it also packs a sneaky emotional punch as well. Dumas would be proud.
But enough of that - we've got special DGLA criteria, so let's go through them...
Is it fantastic? Yes. Although it is worth noting that Traitor's Blade has a particularly hand-wavey (and not entirely consistent) approach to magic. It is a thing that occasionally appears to move the plot forward, and despite it being a demonstrable fact of the setting, there are also indications that not everyone believes in it.
Is it entertaining? Yes. Very. Again, a lot of the set-piece action scenes are transparently contrived, but they're also immensely good fun. This is a book that slashes and parries with great glee, and never stops moving. It reads quickly and feels a lot shorter than it is, which is a very good sign.
Is it immersive? Maybe. I'm not giving full points here, as the world-building is probably the book's weakest link - and not helped by the fact that much of it is delivered by 'As you know, Bob' dialogue between the three Greatcoats. Similarly, the commitment to cool stuff happening often leads to locations that are often more flamboyant than believable.
Is it emotionally engaging? Yes. And surprisingly so. Traitor's Blade really does kick off like silly fun, but Falcio's backstory is interwoven in a such a way that there's real character depth behind the swashbuckling. The moments of earnestness feel all the more powerful for it.
Is it embarrassing? Mostly no. There's one particularly awful misstep, featuring a magical sex-nun - of all the video game tropes to pick up, shag-to-heal is possibly the worst. And, spoilers, of course she fulls in wuv. There's also a dead wife, and, although a hoary (fridge-y, even) trope, I don't think it is badly deployed - her death provides one of the book's rare moments of grim-faced seriousness, and it isn't exploitative. Many of the book's other female characters start as archetypes - naive young women, manipulative crones and damsels in distress amongst them - but all of them have full stories and, more importantly, agency. Traitor's Blade is occasionally laddish, but never, with the one exception above, problematic.
Is it different? Hmm. I think there's something to be said about drawing on the Dumas tradition rather than the Tolkien one. And Traitor's Blade does 'dirty' - and occasionally even horrific - without being wholly gritty. And there's something interesting about the integration of influences - and not just Dumas. Genre fiction has spent a few generations using words to capture vistas and set-pieces that are clearly cinematically inspired. Traitor's Blade is more about hyper-kineticism and meandering plot structure of modern video games instead. But as to a single point of difference? As much as I liked this book, there's nothing strikingly innovative to point to.
Overall? A very good debut, fun and well-crafted - and an auspicious start to this year's reading. If the other four debuts are to this standard, I'd be very pleased (and impressed).