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.