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Traitor's Blade Review


The debut novel from Sebastien de Castell tells the story of the Greatcoats, who were once paragons of justice travelling the country upholding the King’s Law, only to be disbanded when the power-hungry Dukes rose up against their monarch. Now little more than glorified mercenaries and branded as traitors by anyone who speaks of them, Greatcoats Falcio, Kest and Brasti do what they can to maintain notions of honour in a nation quickly descending into despair and hopelessness.

Heavily inspired by The Three Musketeers, although thankfully not to the extent that the central trio are mere expies, Traitor’s Blade takes place in a fantasy world roughly analogous to the late Middle Ages augmented with a corrupt version of feudalism. Like most initial instalments of fantasy cycles, the book is structured as much to give an introduction to the dynamics of the setting as to tell an actual story. While the former is a rousing success, the same cannot be said for the latter. When the plot is deconstructed, it becomes apparent that far too much has been left to fate, for without several chance encounters much of the story simply would not have occurred. The hazily alluded to quest the three Greatcoats are embarked upon is trying to divine the locations of the King’s hidden chariots (“jewels”) that will somehow be the country’s salvation, but about which he neglected to impart any details before his death. You’ll figure out what they are long before the protagonists, making their continued cluelessness to the full significance of the situation a little frustrating.

Perhaps we’re used to a little more moral ambiguity these days, but you’d think it would be enough that the Dukes and Duchesses are merely arrogant and murderous 1%ers without also being sadistic sociopaths whose idea of fun is watching a little girl try to avoid being trampled by a rabid horse. Falcio’s insistence on acting as though the chivalrous ideals he once upheld still apply to the decaying society unequivocally mark him as the hero, but almost everyone else’s view of him as an amoral traitor seems to serve only to lazily emphasise the point by being wrong.

One thing that makes the book truly stand out is its combat sequences. De Castell’s knowledge of swordfighting is clearly extensive, with the numerous duels described as though they were dances rather than fights. Choreographic terminology is employed to better specify the intricacies of the movements, imbuing them with an elegance that sets them apart from the violent melées seen in the works of authors like Joe Abercrombie or David Gemmell. Unfortunately, his knowledge of other forms of combat seems a little lacking, as anything without swashbuckling interplay is either described in the broadest terms or takes place in a haze of berserk fury. To give an idea of the differing detail, whereas duels are lovingly detailed over several pages, the climactic free-for-all battle that effectively decides the fate of the nation’s people and defeat or victory for heroes and villains alike is begun and completed in the space of a couple of vague paragraphs. 

Overall, Traitor’s Blade is a flawed but engaging swashbuckling romp driven by elaborate swordplay and Aaron Sorkin-esque speechifying. Throughout its meandering structure there are the seeds of something great; tighter and less generic and episodic plotting, along with less focus on unforeshadowed and ultimately meaningless revelations, would have done it wonders.

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