Traitor’s Blade is the first installment in Sebastien de Castell’s GREATCOATS series and is an interesting blend of genres — like The Three Musketeers with classic fantasy. At the core it is about a young man whose heart is broken and who has found meaning in defending ideals that are greater than himself.
An oft-used, but nonetheless compelling storyline in fantasy is the abuse of power by the nobility. Whether it’s something as simple as overtaxing and overworking the lower classes or some of the more heinous examples where the Nobles rape, murder and torture with seeming impunity, the concept remains that power unchecked corrupts. Falcio Val Mond has had his fill of exactly this sort of thing. As a young husband his experiences have riven his soul and created in him a desire for justice that drives him beyond his own strengths and forged him into something new.
Serving the King as First Cantor of the Greatcloaks, a paramilitary judicial enforcement organization, Falcio has achieved both childhood aspirations and a measure of sanity as his past suffering is balanced by a means to make a difference. As an arbiter of justice with his own formidable combat skills backing up his royal mandate, Falcio and his fellow Greatcloaks are a check on the abuses of power by the nobility of his nation.
After an uprising that leads to the execution of Falcio’s king followed by the overthrow of the Greatcloaks, Falcio and his closest friends are left to survive by their wits and martial talents as guards for merchants. It is a long, long fall. When his current charge is murdered and Falcio is implicated as the guilty party, his race to exonerate himself and his best friends Brasti and Kest leads down a dangerous path facing off against the power-hungry nobles who remain the bane of his existence.
While the story of Traitor’s Blade is full of adventure and derring-do, I felt a real rift in the writing and story. The author uses a very grown-up vocabulary that is replete with profanity, which is not uncommon in this genre of fantasy, but the story felt like it was written for a younger audience than the language would allow. It’s hard to quantify, but I felt like the story and the characters were meant for my teenager and that would have been wonderful if they didn’t swear so much!
I enjoyed Traitor’s Blade. I liked some of the characters very much, but with some of the important events left largely unexplained (like the way that Falcio is able to survive his journey to become a Greatcoat) the book had… holes that I really wanted filled in. Traitor’s Blade is an interesting story and I will have to decide about the series after book two because the potential is vast.
In a recent review, I described how often times an author will win me over from the start with an unusual structure, and how this can make me more lenient toward any flaws I might encounter. The same is true for another aspect of writing — voice. Give me a character with a strong, distinctive, winning voice, and usually (though not always), I’ll happily follow said character through a minefield of potential pitfalls. Well, I fell in love pretty immediately with the voice of one Falcio val Mond, the first-person narrator of Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, and though the book had a few problems with regard to plot and pace, I cheerily disregarded them, fully won over by Falcio’s character and storytelling persona, which was full of wit and charm and a healthy dollop of heavy emotionality.
Falcio is the first Cantor of the Greatcoats, a highly trained, elite group of about 150 men and women magisters whose job it was to travel the countryside of Tristia and bring justice to all. But the idealistic king whose law they interpreted and upheld was deposed (and beheaded) by the powerful Dukes and the Greatcoats were disbanded and scattered, eventually becoming reviled as “tatter-cloaks.” Before his death, though, the king had given each of them a secret mission and as the book opens, Falcio and his two best friends among the Greatcoats have taken a job as bodyguards to a merchant in order to further whatever geas Falcio was given. Unfortunately, the new job goes awry and soon they are on the run, forced to take on another job that leads them into political conspiracies, conflicts with the Dukes, and a slew of duels, skirmishes, and chase scenes, all leading to a big finish and book two in the series. Which I’ll happily pick up.
Falcio is one of the better character creations I’ve come across lately, a compelling mix of wit, obsession, ethics, idealism, and grief. That latter comes about from an event from his past involving his wife, an incredibly moving scene that has long-term ramifications and is a constant factor in Falcio’s ongoing actions. His two compatriots — Kest and Brasti — seem on the surface to be pretty stock — terse-always-serious-best-swordsman-ever (Kest) and joker-lover-best-archer-ever (Brasti) — but over the course of the novel hidden depths/motivations are revealed. But even if that hadn’t been the case, the banter between the three, which had me laughing out loud on several occasions would have more than made up for it. Here, for example, is a moment’s back and forth before the three face off against a typically overwhelming force:
“How would you rate our chances?” I asked him [Kest].
“We’ll win,” he replied, “but I’ll get wounded, probably in the back. You’ll get hit by one of the crossbow bolts and likely die. Brasti will almost certainly be killed by one of the pikeman, once they get past the weak defense he puts up with his sword.”
And then afterward:
“That was a good idea, Falcio, covering Brasti so he could get to his bow. I hadn’t thought of that.”
I leaned my hand on his shoulder, taking some of the weight off my wounded leg. “Kest, next time you think the most optimistic outcome possible is everyone but you dying, try to think harder.”
Other characters that are also strongly written are Falcio’s king, a young girl Falcio takes under his protection, and a strange old woman who shows up at the worst (or best) of times.
The plot is picaresque, with our trio, and then for an extended time just Falcio once he is separated from his friends, getting into one scrape after another, and then of course getting out of it in a variety of ways, some more plausible than others. The ongoing plot is interspersed with short flashback scenes that trace Falcio’s life from a young boy through a happy marriage, to his meeting with the king that would make him a Greatcoat, and finally to that king’s death. The back and forth is skillfully handled and is effective in both filling in some necessary plot details and in expanding our sense of who Falcio is, often in quite moving fashion.
Otherwise, the plot did have some issues. For one, pacing sometimes was a little off, and I’d definitely say de Castell sometimes fell a little too in love with his descriptions of the sword battles. There were a few holes, and maybe some deus ex machina, though it’s possible both those are not flaws per se but just moments to be further explained in later books. Finally, a few characters, mostly the villains, were relatively non-descript.
As I said though, I so thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Falcio that the flaws were pretty inconsequential in terms of their impact on my reading experience. Traitor’s Blade was a lighthearted bit of dashing old-style adventuring (de Castell doesn’t try to hide his love for Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or that book’s influence) peppered with darker, more emotionally powerful scenes. I can’t wait for book two.
What I loved best about the first GREATCOATS book, Traitor’s Blade, was the greatcoats; not our trio of slightly battered swashbuckling heroes, but their outerwear itself. The coats are awesome: part body armor, part utility belt, and 100% swirly-and-awesome. The thing I liked second best was a magical animal, a horse named Monster. She isn’t as talkative as a later magical animal created by de Castell, but she manages to make her opinions known. The thing I liked third best was the almost-nonstop adventure, structured around a plot where the danger escalates with almost every choice the protagonist makes.
Our main character, Falcio, is broody, but I adjusted for this by assuming he was meant to be the Athos character from The Three Musketeers. Athos was also a world-class brooder. And to be fair, Falcio has a lot to brood about: the murder of his beloved king, which he did nothing to stop, the loss of his wife, and the steady degradation of his society and world.
There are things I didn’t like. I didn’t appreciate the fridging of Falcio’s wife just to give him something to brood about. Along the same lines, I got tired of the constant threats of rape against the women characters. It’s like any fighting man had to pass Leering and Threatening 101 in order to take up arms. When Falcio decides he is going to protect the young girl who is the sole survivor of her family, the men arrayed against him deliver taunts about what they’re going to do to her before they kill her. They have to make sure we know they’re bad, I guess. Well, they trapped her family members in a house and burned them to death after the family had already surrendered… so I think we’ve figured that out. The rape fixation is a failure of imagination from an otherwise delightfully imaginative writer.
I thought the villain’s scheme was too complicated and I didn’t see why it needed to be; and plainly I don’t understand the laws of inheritance in this society.
I tended to forgive most of that, though, once Falcio and the girl were on the run in a corrupt city in the midst of a period of state-supported terrorism called Blood Week, running for their lives and unable to trust anyone. Adventures, twists and turns came thick and fast, and I was hooked.
And I enjoyed the strangeness of a character known only as the Tailor, who is a novelty in that she is one of the few women not threatened with rape (although that also is a failure of imagination). Clearly she’s brilliant, clearly she’s crazy and clearly, she knows far more than she is telling. The book ends on a hopeful note but poised to pitch us head first into the sequel, Knight’s Shadow.
The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded, and Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards for a nobleman who refuses to pay them. Things could be worse, of course. Their employer could be lying dead on the floor while they are forced to watch the killer plant evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Now a royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world. A carefully orchestrated series of murders that began with the overthrow of an idealistic young king will end with the death of an orphaned girl and the ruin of everything that Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have fought for. But if the trio want to foil the conspiracy, save the girl, and reunite the Greatcoats, they’ll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug, and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor’s blade.