I helped promote Sebastien de Castell's Traitor's Blade when the novel was originally released in the summer of 2014. I was a bit intrigued at first, but decided to forgo reading it because it felt like it would be something light akin to works by R. A. Salvatore, with lots of action and choreographed battle scenes, but with little depth and substance. Subsequent positive reviews made me keep the ARC on my "maybe" pile of books to read, but still something kept nagging at me and I elected not to read it. And then, recently some people started claiming that this was a good book for Malazan fans. Now that caught my attention and I inserted Traitor's Blade in the rotation.
Let me begin by stating that de Castell's debut has absolutely nothing to do with anything ever written by Steven Erikson. Not in style or in tone. Not in scope or vision. All in all, it's a light fantasy offering that is a world away from Erikson's magnum opus. Not even close. Having said that, it is nevertheless a super fun read! The kind of book that Sanderson and Lynch would write if they ever teamed up together, and Scott convinced Brandon to forget about worldbuilding and concentrate on exciting action sequences. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Traitor's Blade suffers from too much analysis, yet it's a fun swashbuckling romp of a fantasy novel!
Here's the blurb:
Falcio is the first Cantor of the Greatcoats. Trained in the fighting arts and the laws of Tristia, the Greatcoats are travelling Magisters upholding King’s Law. They are heroes. Or at least they were, until they stood aside while the Dukes took the kingdom, and impaled their King’s head on a spike. Now Tristia is on the verge of collapse and the barbarians are sniffing at the borders. The Dukes bring chaos to the land, while the Greatcoats are scattered far and wide, reviled as traitors, their legendary coats in tatters. All they have left are the promises they made to King Paelis, to carry out one final mission. But if they have any hope of fulfilling the King’s dream, the divided Greatcoats must reunite, or they will also have to stand aside as they watch their world burn…
The worldbuilding is well below par when compared to other fantasy works by de Castell's peers. There are some plot holes and gaps in the storylines, so don't expect things to always make sense. The lack of depth is evident throughout and could potentially kill this book for many a reader. Perusing the online reviews, it appears that this was the case for many people. And Traitor's Blade does suffer from a decidedly weak beginning, which doesn't help at all. But stick with it, forget about its inherent flaws, and you'll suddenly find yourself in the middle of a fun and entertaining read. Think of it as an action flick. Don't think too much, buckle up, and enjoy the ride!
The structure of the novel is akin to that of Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, which means that it relies quite heavily on flashback scenes. Such sequences are great for revealing the backstory, but they do kill the momentum of what is occurring in real time. Oddly enough, the tale reached a point where the flashbacks were more interesting than current events. Indeed, reliving the rise and fall of the Greatcoats was far more fascinating than the actual plot. At some point, the past catches up with the present. But it felt as though too much is being kept from the reader, and the endgame feels contrived and doesn't pack a powerful enough punch.
The characterization is at times very good and at times lackluster. The three Greatcoats, de Castell's versions of the Three Musketeers, are often too witty and over-the-top for their own good. So much so that they often become caricatures. Falcio Val Mond is a more three-dimensional protagonist than his two companions, for he is a POV character and thus more fleshed out. Loyal to a fault and supposedly smart, he's a flawed man that's not always the sharpest tool in the shed. Falcio is dense when the story demands it and it cheapens the entire plot when it happens. Still, Falcio's perspective makes for an engaging POV. Brasti and Kest, on the other hand, just come out as the best swordsman and the best archer to ever see the light of day. There is no substance to either of them. The slapstick dark humor and witty repartee will make you chuckle in basically every single chapter. Traitor's Blade is the kind of novel that doesn't take itself too seriously, but oftimes de Castell kills a scene and robs it of any kind of emotional impact simply by trying to be too funny. As a result, the humor doesn't always work as intended.
One of the main problems with this novel is that everything is so black or white. There are no shades of gray to speak of. In that regard, the author's characterization is very much akin to that of Brandon Sanderson. Which is why I believe that fans of Sanderson might really enjoy this one. The most absurd demonstration of this shortcoming has to do with de Castell's depiction of the nobility. They are cruel and evil to the marrow of their bones, and none of them seems to posses even a shred of compassion or human decency. That approach is so excessive and exaggerated that none of them feel like genuine people.
Traitor's Blade is a fast-paced affair packed to the brim with battle scenes that are choreographed down to the smallest of details. For those who enjoy action adventure fantasy stories, this book will likely hit all the right buttons. Unfortunately, those who expect things to make sense and to echo with some depth will probably think that this work leave a lot to be desired. The plot is more or less a series of misadventures meant to showcase another fight which will be narrated in detailed fashion. Take away the fight scenes and you're left with a manifestly feeble plot that's nothing to write home about. De Castell's debut, like most first volumes in fantasy series, is little more than an introduction that paves the way for the rest of the trilogy. But it would have benefited from more storytelling and less swashbuckling action.
In light of all this, Sebastien de Castell's Traitor's Blade should have been a major disappointment. With very little worldbuilding to speak of, black-and-white characterization, protagonists that are too badass for their own good, too much action and a distinctly weak plot, as well as a predictable ending, this debut has enough flaws to make it a failure to launch. And yet, for all of its shortcomings, once I decided to stop analyzing everything too deeply, this turned out to be a very fun read. Sure, there are quite a few issues with this book. But if you can overlook them, and that's the crux of the matter, Traitor's Blade makes for a very entertaining read. It was so much fun that I went through it in just a few sittings. Can't really explain why.
It will be interesting to see if the author managed to up his game in the second installment, Knight's Shadow, or if the book will suffer from the same flaws. I'm not sure I would enjoy the sequel if it shows the exact same flaws the second time around. Let's hope that the best is yet to come for Sebastien de Castell.