Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Grimdark-tagnan: Sebastian de Castell's Traitor's Blade

One of the reasons I'm a little hesitant to read fantasy these days is that I'm over familiar with the cliches. Sacred monarchy, prophecy, quests, missing heirs, evil dukes - it's hard to do something new with the same old materials. And the grittier end of modern fantasy tends to cynically upend the tropes and then not do anything interesting with the inversion, which is almost more annoying.

There are still contemporary novels in the genre that carry with them the shock of the new (City Of Stairs) or the thrill of the old (The Goblin Emperor). And sometimes I'll come across a craftsman like Stephen Erikson, squarely in the epic fantasy/my awesome DnD campaign tradition, where the forensic attention to worldbuilding enhances rather than detracts from the writing.

Occasionally, though, I'll come across books like Sebastian de Castell's Traitor's Blade, gleefully emitting fantasy tropes without a shred of repentance.

And you know what? I'll surprise myself by quite enjoying them.

De Castell is up for the nearly-but-not-quite-a-Hugo-Award that is the Campbell Award for New Writers.* And with four novels to his credit, he's included Traitor's Blade in the Hugo Voters' packet. 

This is the first in a four-part series of books about the Greatcoats: travelling magistrates and swordsmen dispensing the King's justice. At least, until the King was overthrown by corrupt and quarrelsome dukes and his men left to roam the land - hated, mistrusted and feared.

The backdrop - venal aristocrats versus enlightened monarchs, city-states, gunpowder weapons, poisoners and courtesans - gives off distinct Renaissance Europe vibes, as do the somewhat musketeer-eque Greatcoats. Although de Castell puts a desert one side of his kingdom and howling mountain barbarians on the other, because fantasy, people!

The plot sees chief-Greatcoat Falcio and his compadres Kest (master swordsman) and Brasti (master bowman) fallen on hard times, hunted and hired on as caravan guards to nobles of uncertain morals, all the while trading banter and trying to fulfil the last wishes of their beloved King.

Like all too many modern fantasies, their adventures come with a high on-stage body count and the odd bit of torture. But this is also a strangely high-minded form of grimdark, with de Castell not just concerned to show good (or at least 'good') triumphant and evil defeated but also to explain why. 
What this allows his characters to do is indulge his talent for dialogue as they ponder these ethical questions. In this sense his creation of an order of magistrates to focus the story on is well done indeed as it means the story always returns to matters of honour, power and justice.

Most of these conversations do end up segueing into one of his well-described if lengthy action scenes, but at least you'll know there'll have been some light discussion of legitimate authority in the early modern state beforehand. And at one point de Castell lets Falcio go full magistrate and pass judgement - it's a skillful bit of rhetoric and gives the book its undeniable punch-the-sky moment.

And I've just realised what Traitor's Blade reminds me of a little: grimdark David Eddings.** Slightly predictable and contrived plot, lots of well-used fantasy material, stock character types, villains being irredeemably villainous, the occasional misstep*** - all present and correct. And yet, something in de Castell's skill for narration and dialogue and the alchemy by which all the other elements are combined make the story very readable.

This novel, then is very effective at what it does. It doesn't make de Castell the best new writer of 2016 - or even necessarily the best writer on the Campbell Award shortlist - but it does mean he's likely to have a long and successful career and have time to get better. 

And it also suggests I might pick up the next book in the Greatcoats series at some point when I'm in the mood for this sort of thing.  


* De Castell was on the Rabid Puppy slate but as far as I can tell has no connection to the culture wars dimension of the whole thing. The selection of a fairly orthodox piece of fantasy certainly reflects some of the literary arguments when this happened for the 2015 Hugo's.

** Back in 2012 I looked back with some affection at David Eddings, but without rose-tinted spectacles, here and here.

*** There's a lot of cliche I'll forgive in a book like this, it seems, but one thing that did annoy me was the fridging of Falcio's wife. Surely de Castell could have found a better way of setting up his protagonist's motivation than this old and problematic saw?

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