Saint’s Blood (2016) is the third in Sebastien de Castell’s GREATCOATS series, and as with the previous two (Traitor’s Blade and Knight’s Shadow), it’s both a lot of fun (really, a lot of fun) and deeply emotionally affecting. The series isn’t perfect, but it’s just so enjoyable and engaging that you just don’t mind the few flaws, and that continues with Saint’s Blood, which resolves its major story arc but also points at the very end to a fourth book. And I have no complaints about that at all, happy as I am to spend more time with Falcio, his two constant companions Kest and Brasti, and his wider cadre of idealists: Aline, Ethelia, and others.
The book opens up with Falcio in trouble and facing a difficult fight. You can cue that line up and hit “repeat,” because “Falcio in trouble” is basically the heartbeat of this book, as he moves from the frying pan to the fire to the oven to the microwave to the trash compactor to the… Well, you get the idea. The kingdom is on a teetering edge after the events of the earlier books, with a very tentative and surface-level peace between the nobles and the king’s 14-year-old heir Aline, whose throne is held Regent-style by Valiana until Aline can take her seat. Any hope for stability is quickly put at risk when Saints begin turning up murdered and the Church reforms its ecclesiastical knights and worse, its Inquisitors.
The core strength of this series has always been the first-person voice of Falcio, and that remains true here. As I said in my review of Traitor’s Blade, give me a distinctive and engaging voice and I’ll follow that character through whatever other issues may present themselves, and de Castell has given me no reason to abandon Falcio. But the voice is not simply a repeat of what’s come before because this Falcio is not the same man as we first met. The events of books one and two continue to affect him in all sorts of ways, physically, emotionally, and mentally, impacting his decision-making, his fights, his relationships with his friends, and his relationship with Ethelia, which ideally would be as more than friends. If he’s as quick with a quip, he’s not quite as quick with his swords (not that he’s slow, mind you, just slow-er). He wrestles with the memory of his dead wife, his dead king, and risks losing his faith in his dreams (faith, in fact, is a major theme in Saint’s Blood). He still is an engaging voice, but it’s a more world-weary voice, a more beaten-down voice, and as such comes with more emotional timbre than in the first book.
Meanwhile, his friends have their own issues. Kest especially is struggling with the loss of his Sainthood and of his hand, and with his role if he can no longer be the greatest swordsman (though he’s still damn good with one hand). His torment is as wrenching as Falcio’s, even if it isn’t given quite the same page time and we get it third-hand rather than via first-person narration. Brasti still provides much of the comic relief, but he has what may be the most painful scene in the entire novel. All of these characters, the three main ones, and Aline, Valiana, and Ethelia, are faced with fraught, huge decisions whose stakes are both deeply personal but also political — meaning they affect the thousands who live in Tristia. Just as good as the individual journeys is the way in which de Castell presents the changing relationships among/between these characters. Falcio and Ethelia’s love story, for instance, moves forwards and backwards, never really resting in one spot long enough for the characters, or the reader, to feel wholly assured of where it’s going. de Castell shows an equally deft hand at a variety of other relationships — between companions who love each other like brothers, between parents and children, between allies and enemies. Nearly everyone has to reassess just where they stand in relation to someone else, or a whole bunch of someone elses.
Not everything is an emotional tempest, though. As with books one and two, I laughed aloud many a time and read some passages aloud to my wife. The banter is sparkling and just a joy throughout Saint’s Blood, whether it be one-time back and forths or running jokes, like Brasti’s constant annoyance that nobody ever remembers his name, or disputes over which weapon is best. Despite the darkness and despair and sorrow, these books remain just a lot of fun.
My only quibbles are that the book, more than the other two, felt its length in spots, though not very often and never for long, and that Falcio’s travails can get a bit exhausting, with so many near-death experiences. To be honest, were he not such a wining, engaging voice, I’d probably feel this more strongly, but I’m willing to shrug it away just because I’m enjoying listening to him bemoan his latest impossible situation.
As mentioned, the major plot arc of Saint’s Blood is clearly resolved by the end, though not without some twists and turns. And if Falcio gets to celebrate a little at the end, it’s clearly going to be short-lived, as already, it appears, events are threatening to overtake whatever happiness and leisure these people can find for themselves. I don’t know how far de Castell can take this, but I’m not complaining about the opportunity to follow Falcio and friends through at least one more adventure. Highly recommended, as is the GREATCOATS series as a whole.
… I have witnessed some terrible things in my life, horrible things that made me question the very foundations of my own sanity, but none were quite as discomforting as Brasti Goodbow sounding as if he might be making sense.
It’s easy to read Saint’s Blood, the third installment in Sebastien de Castell’s GREATCOATS series, as an allegory for pluralistic societies versus fundamentali — oh, who am I kidding? It’s not easy to read Saint’s Blood that way. It’s easy to think about the book that way after you’ve finished. You know what it is easy to do while reading this book? Stay up way too late, saying, “Just one more of these short chapters.” That’s easy. Bite your fingernails and scream, “No! Don’t do it!” at the characters. That’s easy. Neglect housework, be late for appointments, those are easy to do. I think you get my drift.
Book Three is the longest book to date in the series, and I think the most complicated. The mysterious Saints (at least two of whom we’ve met) and the even more mysterious gods are explained in detail, but for a very bad reason. Somebody is torturing the Saints to death. The land of Tristia has six gods. Saints are a different matter, and there are, or were, many more of them. Saints are humans who have absorbed some power of the gods, and usually represent one trait or characteristic. In Traitor’s Blade we met Caviel, the Saint of swordplay. Caviel was not a nice person. We’ve also met Birgid, the Saint of Mercy. Mercy plays a large role in this story, and Ethalia, who may be the new love of Falcio’s life, plays an even bigger role.
Falcio and his handful of Greatcoats have spent months trying to bring stability to the land to no avail. The dukes continue to be fractious and self-serving, and now, with the murders of Saints, religious unrest is spreading. Falcio, Kest and Brasti try to track down the murderer of the Saints, only to find that Tristia’s gods are under attack as well. And mere humans may be unable to defeat the adversary they face this time.
In Saint’s Blood, the origin of the abilities of the Tailor are explained, and she comes back into the story, although she is not trusted by Falcio. While Falcio tries to be everyone’s savior, it is the other characters around him: Valiana, his adopted daughter and the Realm’s Protector; Ethalia; and even the heir to the throne, the fourteen-year-old Aline, who face the real struggles and must either grow or fail. As in the second book, but more so, everything the Greatcoats try either meets with failure or makes things worse, and by the end of the book nearly all hope is gone. De Castell does a good job of apparently closing off all the options, and it’s hard to see how our heroes can possibly prevail.
I’ve mentioned before that I had problems with the character of the other Aline, Falcio’s dead wife (the King’s heir is named after her). I am tired of the trope where a woman character is created only to be killed so that the male character can either 1) have an excuse for revenge and/or 2) mope around in some facsimile of “emotional depth.” Throughout these books, Aline just would not go away. In Knight’s Shadow, it seemed like de Castell had used her death in a very different way, and in Saint’s Blood he uses the relationship yet again, with a great deal of power. I still don’t like this trope, but de Castell uses it in a way that makes Aline something more than a body in a refrigerator.
I’m making the book sound angsty and cerebral and it is neither. Well, maybe it’s a bit angsty. Not to worry, there are plenty of duels, fights, chases, secret missions, battles, duels, struggles, searches, duels, did I mention duels? Anyway, plenty of action. And, honestly, as each character must face themselves and excavate their true nature, and the story studies bigger questions of faith and longing for certainty in an uncertain world, maybe it’s a little bit cerebral too.