Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review Traitor's Blade

Traitor's Blade

by Sebastien de Castell

Fair warning, this review really rambles.

Since the jacket blurbs for this and its sequel had multiple references to Dumas' The Three Musketeers it should come as no surprise that I picked up this book. And it's not a bad story, but it is not The Three Musketeers, or Twenty Years After, or even Ten Years Later. It falls into the type of story where the protagonist is, despite being intelligent and more than competent as a swordsman, lawgiver, and, apparently, orator and singer is kind of a dim bulb. He never seems to figure out what is going on around him until after the clever villain has sprung yet another not so surprising to the reader surprise. I get why some readers like novels where they are a lot smarter than the protagonist. Everyone likes to get their ego stroked every now and then. It is, I suspect, part of the reason that the Da Vinci Code was so popular. I have to confess I never read the Da Vinci code because I read its prequel, Angels and Demons first and I thought it kind of sucked rocks. Robert Langdon, the supposedly brilliant Harvard professor of "symbology" who doesn't recognize a simple mirrored image because he is looking at it upside down and who is, in the year 2000, blithely unaware of the existence of CERN or its important connection to the creation of the Internet. Since Langdon is the protagonist in Da Vinci I did myself a favor and skipped the needless aggravation of reading it.

I suspect it is difficult to write stories with characters who are more clever than the reader without falling into the Sherlock Holmes trap. Allow me to explain. What I call the Sherlock Holmes trap is the use by the author of clues that were not really available to the reader to solve the mystery. In the stories Holmes uses all sorts of minor clues to deduce that someone was an old soldier in Afghanistan who received a war wound that invalided him out of the army. While those clues are available to the other characters in the story, e.g. Dr. Watson, they aren't available to the reader because Watson the putative narrator, doesn't mention them. Similarly, there is a game called Consulting Detective where you solve mysteries using the methods of Sherlock Holmes. You get clues in the newspapers that provide background information and you can go to various places around London to ask Lestrade or the Coroner questions or to interview suspects or witnesses. You try to explain the main case and several ancillary or unrelated other mysteries. The goal is to do so with the fewest visits or clues. The game is a lot of fun, the newspapers are a great way to seed clues which would work wonderfully well in an RPG supplement, and the map of Victorian London is really good and makes a great resource for Cthulhu by Gaslight. But one thing we found as we played the game is that Holmes cheats. He follows clues in the exact right order so that by deciding (for no apparent reason this time) to visit Lestrade before visiting the coroner, he gets a clue from Lestrade and the inspector tells him also gives him the clue that he would have learned from the coroner had he gone there first. Of course the coroner doesn't reciprocate, so order matters. In other words Holmes gets to skip one location so his score is lower than yours. Now I suppose that's fine in a game where you are supposed to be helping out the master detective. If you are a big fan of Sherlock Holmes (and if you aren't why in hell did you buy this game?) you probably aren't too surprised that you aren't as smart as Sherlock Holmes.

This is a long and rambling (remember I did warn you) way of illustrating that managing to make a mystery difficult enough so the reader is challenged without making the solution so difficult that it seems like an impossible ass pull by the protagonist is not a trivial authorial exercise. Some authors do get it right though. Lois McMaster Bujold in her Barrayar series manages to create several smart characters, principally Miles Vorkosigan and his mom and dad, while avoiding the need for hidden from the reader clues. I love Miles as a character because he is very clever, but the misses he makes and that you the reader catch, seem very forgivable because of the hyperactive nature of both the action and the protagonist. Also the author cleverly introduces the character at a young age so that some of the things he misses are due to youth and naivete.

Another example, would be Dumas. One of the things I really, really like about The Three Musketeers and its sequels is the character of D'Artagnan who is actually quite observant and rather witty and intelligent. That is seldom shown in the movies. It's probably my main complaint about the otherwise  excellent 1973 Lester version. Sure D'Artagnan is initially very rash and naive. But then he's a hick minor noble from the hills of Gascony and he is, after all, barely 18 years old. And rashness is an almost obligatory Gascon trait. But as the character develops he uses his wit and powers of observation. We see him uncover the secrets of the other Musketeers - it is, in fact, that power of observation which gets him into one of his first three duels - so that by the end of the novel he is entirely credible when he talks his way around and out of his troubles with Richelieu and the reward of a Lieutenancy in the King's Musketeers being given to someone who is poor, not very well connected, and still young seems reasonable and fitting. And when we see D'Artagnan later in life, his wit and observation has been honed to the point that he is the most clear sighted of the characters with a wit at least the equal of Aramis, courage equal to Athos, and fortitude unsurpassed by anyone.

Now at this point, dear reader, you are probably wondering when, if ever, I am going to say more than a sentence about the book I am supposed to be reviewing. Well "fair cop guv'nor you got me bang dead to rights."

The Good

The King's Greatcoats are a cool idea. The Greatcoats are a sort of King Arthur's Knights of the Round table crossed with traveling Western US Marshals and magistrates. The custom made cloak that is simultaneously emblem, armor, warmth, and a bag of tricks concealed in its many pockets is the sort of item that would appeal to lots of RPG players and would fit well into many a fantasy roleplay setting. And the flapping coat image echoes the Old West, 1980s trenchcoat and katana heroes, Whedonesque Browncoat ex-rebels. The Greatcoats are King's Musketeers like the 1993 Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland Musketeers who have been banned and labeled traitors and rebels. Which is totally unlike the original Three Musketeers or the historical King's Musketeers. But it is a movie that I enjoy more on repeated viewing than ever I did when it came out in the theater.

The Saints who are only briefly referenced in this book but who appear in the sequel Knight's Shadow are also a cool idea. Not original, but a type of myth that doesn't appear so much in fantasy, or at least in most fantasy written in English. 

The murdered monarch is an interesting character. He's a more intellectual version of King Arthur sans Sword in the Stone and Excalibur. The intelligent, compassionate man who is not a warrior is not an archetype that shows up all that often in fiction, especially fantasy adventure fiction. So that's pretty cool. And the mystery of what he is really up to is probably the author's most credible mystery that the protagonist doesn't get, but we the reader at least sort of get. Though the full reveal is yet to come.

The supporting characters are good. In fact I quite prefer several of them to the protagonist, who is a bit too much of a straight-man and foil for everyone else for my taste.   

The action is good and the plot doesn't drag though the drama seems contrived, but that is typical and sort of to be expected for stories in the swashbuckling genre. A bit of a faster pace or more details to distract and occupy the reader would have helped to conceal the protagonist's observational failures, but as I said, that seems to be a difficult valley to negotiate.

A few very nice, dramatic lines of dialog are scattered throughout.

The Bad

The protagonist is a dolt. By the way the protagonist is named Falcio Val Mond and the "c" in his first name is not pronounced like an "s." This is made clear in the sequel, but you might as well know that now. I hate having to correct the way I have been pronouncing words in my head when I later learn I got them wrong, so I will save you from that. Apparently it's pronounced like the "c" in Latin, which is pronounced like the "k" in English.

The drama and plot are sometimes contrived

The Neutral

This may be a plus or a minus depending on your taste in literature. Tristia, the country that is the setting for the novel, is a crapsack world. Although they don't literally say "crapsack" the characters frequently remark on how messed up and rotten their world is and has been. The murdered monarch's rule being a momentary bright spot in what appears to be a very dark age. If you like crapsack worlds, well it has that. And if you don't, it seems that the big cause for the characters is to try to fix their crapsack world. One nice thing is that while there is hope that they will succeed, it isn't certain nor is it clear exactly how they will succeed. Though I am betting on seeing some forethought by the murdered monarch.

I found this in my local library and I checked out both it and the sequel, Knight's Shadow. I'm a little over a third of the way through Knight's Shadow so despite my complaints the first book was good enough to finish and good enough to get me to start the even longer sequel.


I give it 2 out of 4 stars.


  1. In TV shows they often make it so that you work out who the murderer is *just* before the detective does, thus giving you a feeling of superiority without making you bored as you watch the detective fail to spot the obvious. Mind you, in one episode of Sherlock I spotted that the Taxi driver was the villain without them speaking purely on the basis that he always plays baddies! With Broadchurch before the last episode the entire country was debating who was the killer, and I declared who it was (not giving my reasons) and my wife scoffed at the suggestion. I was, of course, correct. When asked how I knew I simply replied that they were the most unlikely person in the entire show to be the murderer, we had no reason whatsoever to suspect them, and therefore it must be them.

    Ruth Rendell when writing as Barbara Vine always makes the stories about *why* the crime was committed, not who, and often making you disturbingly sympathetic to their reasons. In King Solomon’s Carpet she did a very neat trick where you read something in one part of the novel, which seems entirely self-contained and of little relevance to the rest of the novel, and then later on you find something out about the would-be-bomber which (if you’re paying attention) connects you back to that earlier event and tells you why they’re doing it, and in that one throwaway line it hits you and you know why they’re doing it.

  2. Spotting the baddie by spotting the actor isn't really genre savvy, I guess it's media savvy. Casting directors do seem to love their types. I've been watching old episodes of the TV show Supernatural lately and its interesting how similar the female guest stars all look. I think that range of looks is one thing British TV often does better than American TV.

    I've never read anything by Ruth Rendel/Barbara Vine. I'll add her to my list for mystery writers. Which books would you recommend in addition to King Solomon's Carpet? And what's the best of her books to start with?

  3. King Solomon's Carpet was my favourite. The Crocodile Bird and No Night Is Too Long were two other stand-out ones (though some people didn't seem to get the second of these).

  4. Bah! I found this to be much less mediocre than you, Mr. Hat. Maybe it's because of some of the long slog novels I've been reading lately, but I was much more forgiving of the novel's faults. I think Knight's Shadow was an improvement in every way. You're right, the world is a bit of a mess (geographically, especially) but no worse than a lot of what passes for good fantasy these days. Once I realized it was essentially Renaissance Italy with all its backstabbing princes turned up to 11, I forgave it for that sin.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for responding. Disagreement is great and the "Bah!" was an excellent touch. Gaston approves.

      I finished the second book in the series Knight's Shadow. I'll post the review for that on Sunday.