Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Microreview [book]: Traitor's Blade, by Sebastien De Castell

De Castell, Sebastien. Traitor's Blade. Jo Fletcher Books, March 2014
The Meat

  When you're making a sandwich, I think you'll agree that it's important to ensure relatively consistent quality among all the various ingredients. If, for example, you splurge and get the nicest tomatoes or whatever known to man, it really doesn't make much sense to slather the thing with Velveeta. You'd want a nice provolone, say, or something with enough oomph to support your investment in the tomatoes.
  As with sandwiches, so too with story-telling. Some stories can be first-rate in most areas and still fall apart, as an ensemble, over whichever element is Velveeta-quality, be it the protagonist, the dialogue, or the descriptions of the fighting.
  What makes De Castell's Traitor's Blade so delightful is that it's all provolone (so to speak). The story is very well crafted, from the dialogue to the fight scenes (I hear De Castell has worked as a fight choreographer!) and there's nary a hint of Velveeta to be found. Anybody can rally behind the much-abused Falcio as hero, especially because despite what the title might make you think, readers will almost immediately discover that this gold-hearted romantic, this ever so formidable warrior, is no traitor at all. Instead, he's been dumped on by everybody, Fates and Furies and everyone in between, and he's only got his blade(s) and his trusty Greatcoat (a half-magical coat which also functions as excellent armor, emergency cash reserve, bag of all tricks, and instant symbol of monarchy in, shall we say, a post-Charles I (but not at all Cromwellian) kind of world.
  Strictly speaking the tale De Castell tells has nothing to do with England, drawing its inspiration from late medieval/early modern Italy instead, but in any case, in the world De Castell shows us, it (to misquote Mel Brooks) is no longer at all good to be the king, nor to be his most trusted friend and compatriot, the aforementioned Falcio. The story is set up as a loose mystery, in which Falcio and his few remaining loyal companions must seek to clear their names/get away from the bad guys/right injustices everywhere/fulfill their king's last requests. So in the Abercrombie-esque, dog-not-only-eat-but-gleefully-tear-apart-dog world they're in, they've got their hands full, needless to say.
  De Castell is at his best as he periodically interjects flashbacks the better gradually to reveal more of the story's central relationship, that between the now (ahem) 'forcibly deposed' king and Falcio, who even years later remains totally loyal to his erstwhile monarch. We are offered a window deep into Falcio's interiority thanks to the first-person narration, even tempered as it is by the 'I write this little account years later' device, so we come to know what makes him tick, and what makes him go ballistic (or whatever the equivalent term is for rapiers—pointillistic, perhaps? Take that, Georges Seurat! That's too good a word to waste on boring quasi-impressionistic painting!).
  The story is captivating, and though many readers (even I figured it out!) will soon see through the king's cryptic assignment for Falcio, it's immensely satisfying to read. The only hint of Velveeta was in a third-act deus ex machina-esque appearance—and, soon, disappearance—of a sympathetic damsel who gives our broken-hearted Falcio one heck of a pick-me-up. The characterization of one particularly bloodthirsty duchy bothered me as well; I immediately thought of Riften from Skyrim, but like five billion times more lawless and dangerous. I mean, this place is like Frank Miller's Sin City bad.
True, random thieves appear to cause mayhem in Riften, but at least there isn't a week-long bloodbath!
  The duchy's tradition of a free-for-all general melee where anyone can be targeted within the time frame of the 'celebration' also immediately brought back memories of that creepy Ethan Hawke movie The Purge, which was certainly an intriguing premise for a sci fi/horror film, but fleshed out here in Traitor's Blade it teeters on the edge of being untenable as a premise. How could a city-state really indulge in such an elaborate orgy of violence at the whim of a despotic ruler and then continue to function normally—or at all—after it? So as interesting a place as it sounds, the uber-evil duchy felt like a melodramatic exaggeration of 'how bad things have gotten since our hero Falcio and his reformer king got screwed.' None of this is to suggest that the parts of the book devoted to describing that duchy are anything less than riveting, however!
  All in all, De Castell has produced a wonderfully inventive, thoroughly entertaining story and a fascinating world in which to set it. And I, for one, am excited to hear how Falcio will proceed in the remaining three volumes of the series! (I just hope he doesn't come down with a bad case of Robert Jordanism and end up writing four seven thirteen twenty thousand books in the series!)

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for creating a berserker with a heart of gold in Falcio, +1 for a story boasting such a consistently high level of quality throughout its many elements

Penalties: -1 for a hint of Velveeta in the deus ex machina of the woman near the end

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention"

[Here at Nerds of a Feather, we don't give out high scores like 8s lightly! See here for how our scoring system works.]