Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

cover art for Traitor's Blade, featuring a dagger stabbed into a blue-toned map that comprises the entire cover. Blood wells up from the place where the blade enters the map. Five gold coins sit in a loose pile in the upper right hand corner.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

TRAITOR'S BLADE [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository] has garnered heaps of positive reviews over the last few months; so many that I came to regret declining a review copy from its UK publisher. A swashbuckling fantasy with shades of Alexandre Dumas and K.J. Parker? It sounded like my ├╝ber-book.

I promptly requested it from the library, but before it could so much as wend its way through processing, let alone make it into my greedy hands, the author put me in contact with his Canadian publisher via Twitter. They generously mailed me a copy that very day.

Authors and publishers can be pretty awesome.

I read TRAITOR'S BLADE almost immediately, then sat on it for a while because I didn't know quite what to think. I enjoyed it, but I had several large problems with it and I wasn't sure I wanted to hash them out on here. There's a lot to be said for critical reviews, but I no longer want to dwell on the books that didn't quite work for me1. It's far more fun to highlight books I can rave about.

And let's be honest--it's always more difficult to write a not-entirely-positive review when the book came to you at the author's request.

That considerable reservation aside, I've decided I do want to discuss my issues with TRAITOR'S BLADE, partially because they've stuck with me in the months since I finished it and partially because I haven't seen them mentioned in any of the other reviews I've come across.

So, here we go.

Some summary: Falcio val Mond and his fellow Greatcoats used to travel the realm dispensing the King's justice, but they've been in disgrace since they stood by and let the Dukes end their monarch's reign. Now reduced to taking odd jobs as they attempt to fulfill their king's maddeningly vague dying wish, Falcio and his two best friends run up against a conspiracy that could throw their corrupt country into even further peril. And disgraced or no, they're not about to watch that happen.

Let's talk about the good stuff first.

I've seen other reviewers describe TRAITOR'S BLADE as fun, and they're not wrong. De Castell packs his narrative with as much action and excitement as any reader could wish for. Fight scenes abound, a great many swashes are buckled, and everyone makes at least a passable attempt to be witty or self-deprecating. The story harkens back to the sort of fantasy I devoured in the mid to late 90s, making it a perfect nostalgia pick for others who gained their readerly stride during that period.

Despite its clear ties to the fantasy of old, TRAITOR'S BLADE doesn't march under the standard medievalesque banner. There's gunpowder, though it's not yet as effective as it might be, and the social structures are perhaps more reminiscent of the late Renaissance or the early Enlightenment. The complex, corrupt political system is tailor made to keep the characters on their toes and add extra intrigue to the plot. Others before me have drawn parallels to Alexandre Dumas's Musketeers books, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn they were a major influence on the worldbuilding as well as the trio at the centre of it all.

But though TRAITOR'S BLADE blends so many elements I usually love, the action and the setting weren't enough to offset the book's flaws. The characters never quite clicked for me, a definite downside that made it difficult to overlook de Castell's reliance on a number of tropes I'm downright sick of.

First: Falcio becomes a Greatcoat after his wife is raped and murdered.

Stop me if you've heard this one.

For the love of hell, can we stop killing fictional women solely to motivate their male lovers? De Castell equips Falcio with several solid reasons to strive for Greatcoatedness even before his wife dies. She could easily have been omitted or--gasp!--allowed to live and contribute to the story in a less cliched and sexist way. Her continued existence would necessitate some big changes to the plot, but I'm not convinced that'd be a bad thing.

Much of the mystery, too, relies on people saying things like, "Oh, I know exactly what's going on and I could explain it to you right this second, but I'm not going to because you're not ready to hear it yet." Which, quite frankly, is lazy and annoying. It can work if the reader is deeply invested in the characters, but I failed to forge such a connection and so was disappointed de Castell chose that route.

Really, there are many plot twists and key details that I'm sure are seriously cool if you're invested, but unsatisfying otherwise. For example, the Greatcoats have a secret code tucked away in their swordwork. Since I didn't achieve the desired level of involvement, though, these things came across as more random than awesome. I struggled to care, even as I could see why other readers might dance in their seats over each revelation.

Worst of all, there's an extremely bizarre scene where a sacred prostitute rapes an injured Falcio (he repeatedly says no; she keeps going), then tells him she's his reward for all he's suffered and they should run away together, on account of him having done her a good turn back before the Greatcoats fell into disfavour. And Falcio considers it. Maybe de Castell will transform this into a meaningful encounter in later books, but right now it feels extraneous, bizarre, and distasteful on every level.



There were times when I enjoyed the book very much indeed, but the issues mentioned above have largely overshadowed the things I liked about it. I fear I can't entirely recommend TRAITOR'S BLADE, good points aside. I'll likely read the second book to see if my view improves, though, and I shall report back with my findings.

  1. I used to write about everything I read, regardless of whether or not I enjoyed it, but these days I have a lot more fun reviewing only those books I really want to talk about--and those tend to be the books I loved. It's rare for me to feel compelled to discuss something I disliked or had mixed feelings about.

1 comment:

  1. Traitor's Blade has been on my wishlist for a while (I think?) BUT now I am totally taking it off. I like swashbuckling stories but the things that annoyed you seem like they'll also annoy me, and I don't have time to read annoying books.