After months of reviews that boiled down to not-my-book-but-maybe-yours or notably-flawed-but-with-some virtues or promising-but-published-a-draft-too-early, I looked at my box of review copies and saw months more of the same ahead of me. So I wrote John O’Neill and asked if any new books had come in that I might be able to love without reservation.
Not only did I love this book, I trusted it. Somehow, de Castell managed in his debut novel to win my trust so completely and quickly that he could tell nearly half of his story in flashback, often for a chapter at a stretch, and never once did he throw me out of the waking dream of fiction to wonder whether he could pull it off. As much as I like watching authorial tightrope-walking acts in general, I like best of all to watch one without worrying that the author might fall.
Falcio Val Mond’s coat is in tatters, along with his reputation, his soul, his country, and the order of warrior-magistrates he led to bring the king’s justice to the people of Tristia. He’s still First Cantor of the Greatcoats — for all the good that does him, with his king long since dead and the dukes of Tristia’s provinces plotting to exterminate or co-opt the surviving Greatcoats and install a new puppet monarch.
What Falcio has left to work with is formidable, though. He is still chief badass of an elite band of badasses, with two of his lifelong companions still by his side. Kest and Brasti are different enough from Falcio and from each other for the three of them to thread their misadventures with a high-stakes debate about how to survive and be of service as bringers of law in a lawless time when they are constantly outnumbered, defamed, despised, and impoverished. How do you help people who hate you, and is it ever conscionable to give up?
When upholding the rule of law requires killing a great many underlings of a great many tyrants, how do you live with all the blood you’ve shed? And if the three basic commands given you by your philosopher king are Judge fair, ride fast, fight hard, with fighting as a last resort, how do you live with all the times you had to run away?
Falcio also has a wicked sense of humor, an endlessly engaging voice, and a creeping case of berserker episodes. Needless to say, berserker episodes are both very handy for a person who’s usually outnumbered and a major problem for a man of law.
As the story opens, our three Greatcoat heroes need to get out of town fast, so they take a job guarding a mysterious lady’s caravan, hoping her freedom to travel will protect them. And it does, sort of, until she leads them to Rijou, the most lawless, most ruthless, most corrupt city in all of Tristia.
It’s not difficult to imagine Traitor’s Blade as a western about circuit-riding judges in the boomtown days of Deadwood. There is something of the noir detective tale, too, about the bloody case Falcio vows to solve in Rijou. The flashbacks to the fall of King Paelis are intimately tragic, genuinely moving, and crucial to solving the puzzle that forms the novel’s overarching plot.
And then there are the fight scenes. Sebastien de Castell works one of the more perfect day jobs for fantasy writers: he does sword choreography for live theatre. The book’s jacket blurbs promise us swordplay and trouble in the tradition of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and it’s a fair claim. The combat is as thrillingly spectacular as you might hope, given that we have here a trio of world-class badasses outnumbered by whole cities and social castes. Falcio’s telling of the tale makes the thought processes and emotional states that drive that combat highly sympathetic, easy to follow, and darkly humorous in the way that such stories must be when good people try to protect their sanity from memories of their own violence. One wonders if de Castell made a study of oral histories of combat veterans to get that balance of real hilarity and intermittently repressed remorse.
For a first volume of a series, this book is satisfyingly self-contained. Several subplots snap shut in the last pages with an almost audible click, while others promise to deepen in future volumes. One of the book’s puzzles is handed to the reader, and solved by several other characters, long before Falcio begins to figure it out, and that is all the better, because the blind spot that keeps him from solving it sooner is part of the gift that only he can bring his world.
Is Traitor’s Blade destined to be a classic? Well, that’s a kind of question I ask myself about books I can get some distance from. I don’t want any distance from this book. What I want, just as soon as I finish writing this review, is to read Traitor’s Blade again, immediately. And maybe once more right after that.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. The Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology she coedited with David Sklar includes stories from James Enge, Elizabeth Bear, and Darrell Schweitzer. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.