Richard Crawford's Traitor Blade (2011)
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The kingdom of Valderon is suffering through a dangerous time. The king's son and heir, Prince Arnaud, is sickly. Although married, it seems that a child is unlikely.
The next in line is the King's nephew - Charles, the eldest son of his estranged brother, Rupert. Although the King and his brother are not open enemies, they're far from friends. Rupert, and his province of Chamfort, are loyal to Valderon, so he treads carefully. He doesn't want to incite a civil war; Valderon already has enough enemies. But the King's unreasonable demands put pressure on Chamfort and Rupert's family, driving them apart.
One of the pawns in this great game is Edouard, Rupert's second son, and Charles' younger brother. Brave, impetuous and incredibly skilled with the sword, Edouard chafes at the restraints that Charles and his father have placed upon him. He wants to be a knight, a champion, a commander of men - to ride free, to smite evil, to achieve honour and glory and greatness. Edouard's talent and his courage make him a favourite at court. His cousin, the Prince, adores him, and the King's greatest general, St Andre, admires him.
If Edouard can only stay out of trouble, he may just achieve his dreams.
But Edouard is as clumsy a politician as he is talented a swordsman. He is, technically, in line for the throne, and as much as he doesn't desire it, the plots are inevitable. His father and his uncle both enmesh him in their competing schemes. Agents of a powerful foreign empire see Edouard as an opportunity. And the woman he loves - Mariette, the young widow of one of Valderon's lords - has her own plans for him.
Mariette is Traitor Blade's second perspective. While Edouard blunders - earnestly, but foolishly - from one scenario to another, Mariette is more aware of the larger stakes. Valderon is threatened not only by political and military powers, but supernatural ones as well. Mariette's husband was killed by mysterious rogue knights; knights that she believes are obeying some sort of occult leadership. Whatever this organisation's objective, its agents are wreaking havoc upon the land. To ensure the survival of her people, her son and herself, Mariette agrees to act as agent for the (equally vague) powers of good. Her role involves seducing the eager young Edouard. But to her surprise, they forge a deeper connection. It is one of Traitor Blade's many surprises, but no good deed comes without a price; no friendship is without its betrayal.
There's no question that Traitor Blade is a complex and ambitious epic, featuring battles political, military, familial and even magical. Edouard and Mariette are two unlikely and ill-prepared heroes. They're bold and capable, but also deeply flawed - not unlike the kingdom that they're (often reluctantly) trying to save.
Is it entertaining? Yes, mostly. Traitor Blade has a slow, and slightly confusing, start. The first few chapters focus on what are, essentially, secondary characters - neither of whom appear again (except in passing reference). They're important, but more in a scene-setting way. There's then an ungainly hop-skip-jump into the near future, and before the book settles its focus on the two characters who are, actually, the main characters. Once it settles in, however, the pages fly by. Edouard (head-strong, passionate, good-hearted but flawed) and Mariette (clever, patient, resolute) provide excellent, contrasting approaches. The end-game isn't particularly clear (especially to Edouard), but the scene-by-scene dramas - be they tournaments, liaisons or even familial infighting - are more then enough to hold the reader's attention.
Is it immersive? Another solid mostly. Traitor Blade uses its setting excellently, but struggles with the fantasy elements. Valderon is a well-constructed, generically-medieval setting. Given the intricate plot, Traitor Blade wisely eschews the world-building detail and conveys all the essential information through the characters and their conversations. The politics, the culture, the schemes and plots of court - these are all rapidly and skilfully conveyed.
However, Traitor Blade invariably slows (and sometimes derails entirely) whenever magic is introduced. The supernatural in this setting is dark and mysterious, with functions and limits that are never wholly understood. Given the excellent work in creating complex, layered characters, the hand-wavey and single-note elements of the magic system - especially its strange elements of compulsion - come as a disappointment.
Perhaps as a side effect of the above, the forces of Good are never entirely made clear. Mariette is recruited to join a conspiracy - some sort of order that has a greater purpose. Although they appear and disappear in plot-fulfilling ways, their role and purpose goes unexplored. Mariette, who is otherwise curious, uncharacteristically takes their pronouncements at face value, further robbing us of an opportunity to understand the greater schemes.
It it emotionally engaging? It varies depending on the point of view, so I'm giving it a kinda. Edouard is definitely the strongest character, as he chafes against the political and social restrictions that keep him from doing his thing. It is easy to empathise with him: he doesn't want anything bad, and his frustration is palpable. Moreover, when he gets his wishes, we can easily share his elation - and his surprise, when his dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be. Mariette, possibly because of the first few chapters' sleight-of-hand, is harder to relate to. She's a cool, logical, effective force (for a conspiracy that we don't really understand) - except where she has completely irrational whims and grudges. Neither aspect of her personality is as much fun to read as Edouard's red-blooded romping through court.
There's also the spectre of the, um, spectre, which lets the book down somewhat. The chilling forces of Evil are without discernible motivation, which makes it hard for us to understand - or care about - the stakes. And there's some sort of sorcerous compulsion makes people do bad stuff, but, again, mind control is almost the ultimate in tell-not-show. It is hard to connect with people that are doing things without agency, and for no clear reason.
It is worth noting that Traitor Blade has a real gift for secondary characters. Although the majority of the narrative is from Edouard or Mariette's point of view, the book punctuates their stories with other, often one-off perspectives. These - be they a runaway servant or the King himself - all come to life quickly, establish clear motivations and have distinct voices. These interludes are fun to read, and add a lot to the overarching story.
Is it different? Nope. I liked this book, but it is very much in the vein of popular commercial fantasy. Multiple POV characters in a hand-wavily-historically-'authentic' secondary world, with a ruthless disregard for character life, gray morality, detailed political chicanery, and constant threat from both human and supernatural forces. Even the two main characters - Bold Boy and Smart Girl - are archetypes. This isn't criticism: I like this style of fantasy, and Traitor Blade is doing it very well.
Is it embarrassing? Nyah. The prologue is a little sleazy, and sets things up in a slightly misleading macho grimdark direction. But that is because of the prologue's (unique) point of view, and is deliberately done. This is one of those medieval worlds where 'men do' and 'women are' (...wives, spies and courtesans), but that isn't presented as right, as much as a slightly frustrating status quo. I may be projecting, but Mariette seems exhausted by her limited agency. She is the smartest and most effective person in the book, and accomplishes a great deal, despite the restrictions of society.
In a nutshell... Traitor Blade features a kingdom under threat by forces known and unknown. Two minor players navigate the politics of the royal succession, but, unbeknownst to them, there's a greater evil at work. A slightly tangential opening helps set the scene, and the rest of the book is devoted to establishing our unlikely heroes. As befits the opening book of an epic, there's no real sense of climax - instead, by the time it ends, the characters (and the reader) are just starting to feel out the shape of the series' true conflict. Although slightly let down by the obscure and ominous magic, the politics and day-to-day struggles are excellently done - this is very good historical fiction that just so happens to be in a secondary world.
For readers of... Katharine Kerr's Deverry series, Juliet McKenna, Miles Cameron's The Red Knight
This review is part of the SPFBO. You can learn more about the competition here, and our approach to it here.