Book Review: Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien De Castell

Traitor's Blade

 

An intricate, fast-paced plot, large abundance of sarcasm-laden (but hilarious) dialogue and ongoing contemplation of morality and honour against a medieval-esque setting are central to Sebastien de Castell’s first novel, Traitor’s Blade, making for an adventurous read that always convinces you to keep turning the page. The novel follows a man named Falcio Val Mond, the leader of the infamous Greatcoats, an elite group of fighters and law enforcers who serve the King of Tristia. The only problem is that the King, who was overthrown by the Dukes of the land, is dead, causing the Greatcoats to disband and scramble to survive in a lawless, greedy world where they are anything but respected. We meet Falcio and his two friends, Kest and Brasti while they are being framed for the murder of their current employer. This is the first of many events that leads them to unravel a political conspiracy and a quest to save a girl, both of which will change the fate of Tristia and the Greatcoats forever.

The entire story is told from Falcio’s perspective, which besides obviously narrating the entire plot, is also through which we experience the conflicting senses of morality, each of which hinge upon two different chapters of Falcio’s history. The first consists of a devastating loss that triggers a desire for revenge and a permanent sense of sadness. The second is his unwavering belief in the King, the law, and the honour of a Greatcoat, which he has harboured since he was a little boy. It’s interesting to see how he struggles to balance the two when making judgments and decisions, particularly when he is thrusted into the central conflicts of the novel which basically becomes an ongoing survival quest. Although it is the latter of the two that tends to prevail, it is the former that really humanizes the character as it shows him being just as capable of an emotionally-based decision as he is of one based on duty.

This is not to say that anything related to Falcio’s life as a Greatcoat makes him a dull character. In fact, the aspects to his personality that are rooted in his experiences as a Greatcoat add another layer to understanding de Castell’s world. I found this to be particularly true whenever he was strategizing against opponents because he would share how his training and knowledge had prepared him to survive. Interestingly enough, this skill set is used in Rijou, where the Greatcoats were barely active during their time, but it ends up being the place where they have to exercise their instincts the most. This also gave de Castell an opportunity to share some of his own knowledge of fight choreography, which resulted in extremely detailed fight sequences that helped conjure some great imagery while reading. You could tell that de Castell really finds beauty in the clashes of swords and flying arrows, even going as far as to using it as a language of sorts in the book. I did find this to simultaneously be one of the aspects of the book that I did not enjoy as much while reading simply because I would get lost in the coordination of crossbows and punches. I suppose that if I were in such a fight, I probably would not survive because of this!

I really appreciated how in many ways de Castell created a world that occasionally draws from typical fantasy/adventure settings, but also made an effort to set his own rules. For example, there is a set of incredibly strong and varied female characters who become the lifeline of many plot points in the story, and are far more interesting than some of the archetypes you encounter. Unlike a lot of other fantasy novels, where magic is positioned as either good or evil, de Castell describes it as being a cheap commodity and it plays a minimal role in the story, which is a refreshing take on it. Finally, I enjoyed how he decided to focus the story in one particular area of Tristia called Rijou as opposed to taking his readers on a wild journey across Tristia. I liked how he used a Rijou tradition called “Blood Week” where the laws of the ruling Duke are absent, creating a completely anarchic state that Falcio has to navigate in order to survive. I sometimes felt that it was too convenient for certain characters to end up where they did or play such an integral role in some of the events in the climax, but I think it was offset by the humorous dialogue and de Castell’s ability to present a setting in its fullest, detailed form. It’s such an ability that makes me excited to explore more of Tristia in such a way and read the next book in the series, Greatcoat’s Lament, which is currently being reviewed by de Castell’s publisher.

Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell will be released on March 4th, 2014 through Penguin Canada in Canada. 

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There And Back Again

Traveling abroad, especially for extended periods, is such an odd experience. It’s amazing how quickly you get caught up in a swirl of airplanes, trains, and automobiles, cultural dips, tourist sites and family activities, but before you know it, you suddenly find yourself back at home again, the adventures simply a collection of memories. Great ones, of course, but incredibly surreal.

I kicked off 2014 by visiting my other homes: India, where my family is from, and Singapore, which was my home for two years during the 1990s. Even though I have lived in Canada for most of my life, I feel like I have a strong affinity for each of these places that have evolved out of completely different sources.

It’s easier to describe this for Singapore. There is a part that is rooted in the physical experiences involved in moving from one side of the world to the other. These are mainly the obvious elements, like climate, where I went from frigid winters to year-round sticky humidity, and the differences in our homes, a townhouse in Toronto and an apartment in a condo complex in Singapore. Yet, the real reasons why I hold Singapore near and dear to my heart is because of the experiences that, in retrospect, were really major building blocks to my interests and approach to life today. I think this is particularly true when it comes to my desire to travel and learn more about different cultures, given that I was uprooted from my home to a new one where I was exposed to so many not only by just living in Singapore, but by visiting surrounding countries whenever we could. Living in Singapore was such a significant chapter for my entire family. I was so happy that I got to revisit it for a few days in January.

Of course, it has changed a lot since we left. Gone are the days of green patches on Orchard Road, which has become a sprawling paradise for nearly every high-end brand out there, including Céline, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu, and DvF. It’s not like I could shop at these showrooms, but it was an interesting indication of Singapore’s consumer market. I did make a few purchases at Tang’s, Lucky Plaza and Far East Plaza, some of my family’s favourite places to frequent back in the 90s. Most of my shopping was done in Chinatown, which, like many other parts of downtown, was decorated with colourful displays to celebrate Chinese New Year. There were tons of great deals there, so much so that I made two trips to the area in less than twenty-four hours.

A view of Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

A view of Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Another notable addition to Singapore’s attractions is Marina Bay. I did not get a chance to walk around the area, but I did go to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel to check out the gorgeous view of downtown at sunset. It’s really spectacular and something I would recommend for anyone visiting Singapore. Warning: it’s quite windy up there, and you may freak out over the fact that you are 58 stories up from the ground. BUT. Totally worth it.

This was my old elementary school in Singapore.

This was my old elementary school in Singapore.

The highlight of my trip came when I revisited my old apartment complex located in Bukit Timah. Everything about this part of the trip caused waves upon waves of nostalgia [ultra]. We drove by a strip of stores where my brother’s barbershop used to be, gawked at Beauty World Plaza, which to our surprise had not been torn down, and took a peek at my old school through the chain-linked fences. The outdoor gymnasium is still there. The cafeteria, a place of safety during the endless rainstorms, is still there. And my home, unlike majority of that area, did not get a fresh paint job or a fancy new security system. It looks exactly the same, down to the swing set that I used to go to after school. My childhood is held in these places, and these sights triggered so many memories that I will hold onto forever. If I ever get a chance to return in the future, I will fondly remember this experience, which I got to have with my parents. I wonder if they feel similarly every time they go past their old hangouts in New Delhi.

I’ve been to Delhi quite a few times, but I only started to truly value my experiences there during my recent trips. I think it’s partially because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more conscious of the influence that my heritage has had on me and will likely continue to have on me. When I was younger, I sometimes resented its place in my life because there were some moments where I really struggled with having to uphold traditions and values rooted in our Indian culture while growing up within a Western environment. It was difficult to navigate this cultural convergence for myself, my parents and even my peers and friends, who experienced similar challenges during our adolescence. It took all of us a while to understand it and strike a balance, but we eventually found our way.

My parents were always keen on our family embracing the Canadian lifestyle, and they did so pretty much from the moment that they decided to settle in Canada. Any hiccups and cultural confrontations were a necessary and natural part in our relationship, and I think it made our environment even more liberal and open than it was to begin with. It’s because of these discussions and arguments that my home was not a place where talks about arranged marriages were common or where I felt pressure to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer or where hanging out with a group of male and female friends was frowned upon (to be fair, this only became okay in high school, but you get the picture). As we grew up, things like adopting aspects of our culture, determining our relationship with faith, learning Hindi and even traveling to India were presented to us as choices, not obligations.  I’ve made many decisions in favour of these options because I wanted to maintain some ties to my heritage, traditions and values so that they would still be a part of my identity.

The fun thing about identity is that it can change and evolve. The last few years spent living away from home at university have played a significant role in shaping who I am and the kind of life I want for myself. Now, I’ve reached a point where I want to pay more attention to my ethnic heritage and build deeper connections with it than I have in the past. I realized this when I was in India last month. Maybe it’s because of how easily I slipped into life in Delhi, finding the sounds of endless honking oddly comforting, floating around the markets, eating toast in the morning and roti and potatoes in the evening, and developing an unhealthy obsession with melodramatic soap operas.  Maybe it’s because I was able to spend more time with my family there, including my grandparents, one of whom is 91. Maybe it’s because of all the essays I wrote and the class discussions that I had during my undergraduate career on India’s economic and social development. Maybe it’s because of my newfound fascination with India’s history that developed after touring some of the historical sights in Delhi and Agra. Maybe it’s because of how much I relate to the country’s current cultural convergence. Maybe it’s because my family comes from opposite ends of the country and I want to have a better understanding of these subcultures. I think these are all contributing factors, but generally speaking, I just appreciate having ties to a completely different world that I have barely tapped into.

Unlike my relationship with Singapore, which is an important part of my past, I truly believe that my relationship with India will become more of a cornerstone to the person that I will become in the years to come. I’m not comfortable with letting my connections to this home slip from my hands. I owe it to myself the chance to explore that aspect of my identity further. I am pretty sure I won’t do so in an Eat Pray Love-esque way, but it’s definitely something I want to actively pursue in the years to come.