‘Traitor’s Blade’ by Sebastien de Castell

Traitor's Blade (Greatcoats #1) by Sebastien de CastellTraitor’s Blade is the sort of novel that has undoubtedly been described by someone, somewhere, as either a ‘rollicking adventure’ or a ‘ripping yarn’. Possibly both, and deservedly so.

This flawed yet impressive debut from Sebastien de Castell introduces Falcio val Mond (formerly First Cantor of the esteemed Greatcoats) as he struggles to uphold justice in the corrupt land that killed his King and censured the Greatcoats. Falcio and his stalwart companions Kest and Brasti spend their days eking out an ignoble living as lowly caravan guards; at least, until until their client is brutally killed, on their watch no less. Framed for his murder, these three musketeers Greatcoats must first run for their lives before attempting to seek out and bring justice to those responsible. But Tristia’s corruption runs deep, and it seems that this time Falcio may be just a little bit out of his depth.

I had a lot of fun with Traitor’s Blade. The narrator is humorous and likeable, and the banter between Falcio and his companions is (for the most part) witty and gentle, seeming natural rather than forced. The plot is solid; the pacing, fast; and although the main story is peppered with flashbacks, these are (surprisingly) not annoying in the slightest. The flashbacks are always brief and relevant to the immediate events of the story, and in no way intrude upon or detract from the main events. Refreshingly, the tone is relatively light-hearted throughout, although Castell shows he’s not afraid to delve into murkier waters with a few dark scenes which, in addition to being (arguably) unnecessary, make for somewhat difficult reading.

The book is by no means perfect. Beneath its likeable heroes and shiny veneer, Traitor’s Blade is riddled with clichés: we have noble outcasts, scheming Dukes, and evil villains (with at least one scene featuring the latter somewhat ill-advisedly revealing their diabolical plans to the captured hero), not to mention an obligatory torture scene, tragically murdered wife and ongoing quest for vengeance. And although I know it’s ridiculous to cry ‘unbelievable’ at a work of fantasy, there are also a few ‘yeah, right!’ moments: for instance, what are the chances of our heroes just happening to arrive at their destination as the city’s equivalent of The Purge is about to take place? And, lastly, I was a bit disappointed that I managed to correctly figure out three of the four major plot twists relatively early on in the story.

Griping aside, I found Traitor’s Blade to be a highly enjoyable and fast-paced read, with a focused plot and a protagonist I could really get behind. Although there were elements I disliked, there’s no denying that with Traitor’s Blade, de Castell has kicked off the Greatcoats quartet in style.

‘Three Parts Dead’ by Max Gladstone

I’m going to begin my review of Three Parts Dead by including the official blurb (which does a much better job of summarising this quirky, unique novel’s premise than I ever could):

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.

Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.

When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

I was a bit unsure going into this one, as many reviews I’d read about Three Parts Dead contained phrases like “acquired taste” and “you’ll either love it or hate it”. I actually neither loved nor hated it, but found it to be a fun read full of interesting twists.

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max GladstoneGladstone’s world is fresh, original and dark; a steampunk-inspired blend of gods and magic and technology. The majority of this book is set in the city of Alt Coulumb, ruled by the fire god Kos Everburning and the former goddess of Justice. But the city’s equilibrium is threatened early on when Kos dies under mysterious circumstances. It’s further imperiled by the return of the reviled ‘Stone Men’ of legend, aka. gargoyles.  (A particularly striking concept conjured by Gladstone is of Justice’s servants: an army of peacekeepers who, when on duty, can call upon Her power and transform themselves into the indestructible  – and terrifyingly automaton-like – Blacksuits.)

Three Parts Dead follows Tara Abernathy (a newly-graduated Craftswoman) as she is recruited to a necromantic law firm by one of its partners; she then travels to Alt Coulumb, begins a series of dangerous investigations, is acquainted with new allies and old enemies, and finally reaches the unexpected climax of the bizarre ‘legal’ case. Believe it or not, the main part of the story takes place over the course of a single day and night, and the series of events is pretty thrilling, despite the heavy focus on law.

There are four main POV characters: Tara, of course; the ancient and mysterious Ms. Kevarian; Cat, a Blacksuit; and Abelard the novice priest. Each has their own agenda and their own perspective on the case, and the author uses the shifting POVs to good effect, alternately keeping us in suspense and building momentum. However, the pacing remains fairly slow and steady throughout. The good thing about this is that there’s hardly ever a dull moment; the less good thing is that there are no real ‘high’ points until the end, and even the climax doesn’t quite feel as, well, climactic as it perhaps should. I also felt that there were a couple of things that served simply as convenient plot points (such as Raz Pelham: dandy vampire) but I’m probably just nitpicking.

The world of Three Parts Dead is built really well, and we’re drip-fed bits of information relating to its history without ever being overwhelmed by it. Even better, there are tantalising mentions of other parts of the world which are never properly explained, and some of which we never actually see, such as the scorpionkind, the sea serpents, the Deathless Kings, the wastelands of Gleb, and the Hidden Schools. It makes the author’s fictional world seem bigger and more real, despite the fact that we only ever really see one city, and also gives the impression that further books in the series will (hopefully) finally allow us to see these things.

‘Herald of the Storm’ by Richard Ford

Comparisons to other authors can hurt a book rather than help it. Typically, readers draw parallels between Ford’s work and that of George R.R. Martin (though let’s face it, it seems rare nowadays for a fantasy novel to escape comparison to – or endorsement by! – ol’ GRRM). Richard Ford’s debut is no exception. However, aside from the structure (alternating chapters from differing points of view) and maybe a bit of the grittiness I wouldn’t personally make this comparison, partly because ASoIaF is something of a sweeping epic, while Herald of the Storm concerns itself entirely with the city of Steelhaven.

Stand together . . . or die alone.

The contained setting is, for me, the book’s strongest point. The plot is tight and pacy, and the ways in which several of the individual storylines were eventually interwoven was nicely done. There are two or three main plotlines occurring at the same time – an illegal slave-trading operation, a royal assassination attempt, and an act of dark magic – and it’s interesting to see how different characters are involved in each plot, and how each mini-plot becomes relevant to the bigger picture. In fact, the whole book does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series.

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters: there’s Kaira Stormfall, morally upright Shieldmaiden of the goddess Vorena; Janessa Mastragall, innocent and headstrong heir to the throne; River, an assassin with a conflicted soul; Merrick Ryder, a former duellist and dandy who has fallen on hard times; Rag, a street urchin and pickpocket; Nobul Jacks, soldier-turned blacksmith-turned city guard; and Waylian Grimm, apprentice in the tower of magick (no, I’m not sure why it has to be spelt with a ‘k’ either). Although there are a fair amount of characters, the variety between them really makes it work.

Herald of the Storm by Richard FordThe author cleverly uses the novel’s form to keep certain things – e.g. the identity of certain characters – hidden until key moments. Ford uses alternating PoV chapters to gradually reveal surprising connections and illustrate the impact of characters’ decisions on others. I did feel that some storylines felt a little out of place: Rag’s story came to feel a bit irrelevant, and Waylian (and magick in general) also seemed somewhat shoe-horned into the story. However, the final chapters for these characters do seem to suggest that both will play a larger role in future novels.

A quick point about the language: I don’t have a problem with profanity in fiction, as long as the language fits with the character of the person who’s saying it. The author has created several less-than-golden characters here (many of whom swear frequently), and while they suit Herald’s grimdark tone the fucks and shits do become a bit tiresome!

Earlier, I mentioned the use of GRRM as a benchmark for modern fantasy novels. Fact is, I bought this book on the strength of its comparisons with Joe Abercrombie. While I can certainly see the similarities – character-driven storytelling, grimy characters, dirty deeds – Ford’s characters didn’t quite spring to life for me in the same way as Logen, Glokta, Monza et al., and I think this is another case of hurting a book by (unfairly) comparing it to another of a very high standard. One review raved that Herald of the Storm was actually much better than the First Law trilogy, and I couldn’t help being just a tiny bit disappointed.

However, unrealistic as my expectations were I still enjoyed the book a lot. The characters grew on me over time, and I look forward to reading Steelhaven #2: The Shattered Crown.

Review originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2017.