A Grab Bag of the Wonderful and the Terrible – A Review of Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell

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For every reader, there is a book that gets one absolutely, irrevocably hooked on a genre, or a trope, or a very specific character type: a book that presents a true ideal, that shows the heights of that genre, or trope, or character type, and leads to one desperately trying to find traces of that in every other book one reads. For me, the book was The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first in the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch. While I enjoyed fantasy, and had an inclination towards rogues for a while, Lynch’s book pretty much encapsulated all those tropes and ideas I’d loved in one book, and managed to concentrate them further into a potent, heady, and absolutely hilarious (and tragic) story. Ever since I read that novel, I’ve tried to find other novels like it—but I’ve never found a novel that could even come close to matching it. Oh, sure, there were traces of it in the other novels I read, but another novel just like it?

Unfortunately, no book has managed to have the essence, the spirit, of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and while I suppose that’s a good thing (as a testament to Lynch’s creativity that he can make something so unique), I simply can’t help but hope that another author can at least provide me with something to tide me over until Lynch releases the next novel in the series and I can get back to reading about Locke and Jean’s hijinks.

When I first started reading Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, the first in his Greatcoats series, I thought, for a brief moment, that I’d finally found it: the novel that would come closest to being like The Lies of Locke Lamora. Sure, it felt a lot more like The Musketeers than anything else (in fact, I heard the opening theme for The Musketeers playing in my head almost from the get-go), but that was fine. It felt like it had the spirit of Lynch’s novel, and I had high hopes it would continue in that vein.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. Traitor’s Blade is an entertaining piece of work, to be sure, and it certainly has its moments, but it also has problems: which, depending on one’s level of tolerance, may either merely annoy one, or make one want to toss the book entirely.

Traitor’s Blade begins with a man named Falcio, and his friends Kest and Brasti, as they stand guard at the door of Lord Tremondi, one of the Lords Caravaner. However, Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are no ordinary mercenaries: once upon a time, not too long ago, in fact, they were Greatcoats, who traveled far and wide dispensing justice in the name of the King. However, the King has been killed by the Dukes of his kingdom, and the Greatcoats have since scattered and all but disappeared. Now called “tatter-cloaks” by all and sundry, reviled by the common folk, and hunted down by the Dukes, Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have no choice but to sell their swords (or bow, in Brasti’s case) for coin.

But Falcio has a plan, or rather, a dream: bring back the Greatcoats so that they can do as they always did, and black the collective eye of the Dukes who murdered their King. However, things don’t go quite as planned, and the three men are set on a path that could see them all hanged—or that could see them bring back the Greatcoats in a way none of them never expected.

Initially, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this novel; in fact, I found it rather enjoyable. The world is typically European, unfortunately, but it’s not medieval: instead, it reads like a fun mixture of Musketeers-era France (the emphases on duelling and fencing), and Borgias-era Italy (the constantly warring duchies and the political power plays). Now, I think I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that I adore the Italian Renaissance and almost anything that’s set in it or in a world based upon it, but I also love the world of Dumas’ Musketeers. Naturally, seeing those two combined together in one world made me very happy indeed—not least because of the way Falcio, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, talks about it, in all its glory and all its tragedy.

Speaking of Falcio, he has a fun, sarcastic voice that’s very entertaining to read—especially since he’s an older man (I assume he’s somewhere in his late thirties to early forties) who has seen a lot and done a lot in his life, but still has the ability to make wisecracks from time to time. To be sure, there’s an edge of bitterness in his wisecracking, but I think that’s what makes me appreciate his sarcasm even more. Many people who read The Lies of Locke Lamora accused Locke of being a shallow smartass, and I suppose that might be because he had never really encountered real, personal tragedy until the key events of the novel happen. Falcio, on the other hand, has tasted deep of the well of tragedy, so that darkness tinges his humour, however lightly, at every turn. One may laugh at it, to be sure, but it quickly becomes clear to the reader that there’s a reason why Falcio makes those wisecracks and talks as smart as he does, whereupon the reader’s laughter may become just a touch less loud, and a little more circumspect.

It was this narration that really made the book for me. Falcio is a very fine storyteller, and I liked reading about how he went about telling the tale. I’m especially fond of the way the duels were described. It’s not easy, writing a fight scene, but the ones detailed in Traitor’s Blade read amazingly well. They are pretty easy to imagine, but not so overwrought that they bog down the rest of the narrative. There were plenty of times when I heard the opening theme from The Musketeers playing in my head as I read the novel—and that is very much a compliment to de Castell’s writing of the fight scenes.

As for Kest and Brasti, they’re a bit hard to talk about since they don’t get very much development—which is rather unfortunate, because this kind of reduces them to two-dimensional sidekicks. Kest is developed a touch more than Brasti, but that’s only because his past is deeply intertwined with Falcio’s, and in the course of telling Falcio’s backstory it’s necessary to tell Kest’s, as well. Brasti very much gets the short end of the stick here, but I do hope that changes further down the line. I’d like to know that he’s more than just a pretty face with the ability to put an arrow through a man’s head from a good hundred yards away. I hope the same goes for Kest, as well, given what happens to him towards the end of the novel.

As for the plot, that’s pretty fun as well. It hops back and forth between past and present, gradually revealing Falcio’s past, as well as the history of the founding of the Greatcoats, all while moving the plot forward—a similar setup, in fact, to The Lies of Locke Lamora, albeit with fewer mind-bending twists. I always appreciate a novel where the safety of the characters (if not all, then at least some) is in doubt, and while it’s clear Falcio isn’t going to die anytime soon, given that he’s the narrator for this series and there are other books still to come, the other characters’ safety isn’t clearly guaranteed.

Now, all of this is certainly well and good, but as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not without its problems. There has been much talk about female characters being “fridged” for the sake of giving a male character a tragic backstory, and Traitor’s Blade actually makes use of this stereotype in order to give Falcio a tragic backstory—a backstory that is pretty much his rhyme and reason for existence from the moment it happens all the way up to a crucial moment in the latter part of the novel.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with killing a character’s loved one in order to give them a tragic backstory—there is probably nothing more tragic than losing a loved one under violent circumstances, and when people lose loved ones, both in fiction and in reality, they change profoundly. What irks me about this whole thing, though, is that Aline is not a fully-developed character. The only time the reader meets her is when it becomes expedient in the story to explain Falcio’s tragic backstory, but never once does the reader see who she was before she met Falcio, who she was as a person outside of the context of Falcio’s personal background. She was his wife, he loved her almost beyond reason, and when she died Falcio went mad: that’s it. The reader doesn’t find out the whys and wherefores of Falcio’s love for her, in the sense that the reader never gets to truly know her. We are forced to accept that Falcio found her special, and he loved her, and that’s it. She does not stand independent of him as a character, and that is what irritates me the most.

And then there is Ethalia, a sister of the Order of the Merciful Light, who is introduced midway through the novel, and then is never seen again. She isn’t fridged like Aline, but the reason for her existence also irritates me to no end. Now, I’ve got no problem with incorporating the idea of sacred prostitutes, or sacred sex, or even a sex-based religion into a fantasy novel: there’s plenty of historical evidence that such cults existed in different parts of the world, and that the priests and priestesses involved were often held in high regard by the populace. What I do care about is how the characters involved in those cults are depicted, and I must say, I’m not entirely happy with the way that’s done here. The problem with Ethalia is that her appearance in the novel appears to be nothing more than an attempt to “heal” Falcio of his hurts: specifically, the ones caused by the death of his wife—which, in the end, doesn’t really help Falcio at all, or if it does, then it’s only minimal.

As with Aline, my main complaint is that Ethalia isn’t really developed as a character beyond what she does for Falcio, once again tying her entire existence in the novel to this one male character for the sake of “healing” him of his past hurts. If she had been better developed, better introduced, better everything, then I might have been willing to accept her role in the novel, even if she’s never seen again in the other books. But as things stand, I can’t accept that she’s there just to sex Falcio up into a better state of mind—in fact, I think that one entire chapter involving her could have been done away with entirely, given how extraneous it feels to the rest of the novel. I hope de Castell proves my complaints about Ethalia wrong, because as things stand, his characterisation of her is not a credit to his writing skill.

But what makes the above even more annoying is the fact that the other female characters aren’t all that bad. To be sure, they aren’t all the kick-ass-and-take-names types, but they do cover an interesting personality spectrum: Duchess Patriana is the epitome of crazed and power-hungry; Valiana is spoilt and childish but with a heart of gold; and Aline (a different Aline from Falcio’s wife) swings from childish to remarkably mature, but through most of the book from the point in which she appears, onwards, is brave and blessed with common sense (which Falcio doesn’t, unfortunately, appear to have). This is what I look for in female characters: to cover a spectrum of personalities, to stand independent of the men around them, and to have a story that sees them grow, for better or for worse. While I’m not entirely happy with the way these women have been portrayed thus far, I’m willing to let this slide for now and see how things go further down the line in the next books. I have hopes that things will get better in terms of characterisation for these women—though I will admit that those hopes are somewhat dimmed, given what I’ve already mentioned.

Overall, Traitor’s Blade is a rather enjoyable read: the male characters are entertaining, though some could use a bit more development to really stand out; and the plot itself is well-narrated and well-structured—the fight scenes, in particular, are easy and fun to read. I like Falcio, for the most part, both as a protagonist and a narrator, and when a story is told from first-person point-of-view, likability of the narrator is key to enjoyment. However, the characterisation of certain female characters is extremely problematic, and may, depending on the reader’s preferences and temperament, make them want to quit the novel entirely. If they do, I can’t say I blame them, but the other female characters do give me some hope that things will get better in the upcoming novels. After all, this is just the first book in a series, and hopefully someone’s already informed de Castell that there are ways of treating female characters that do not lean on misogynistic stereotypes. At any rate, I plan to find out if that’s the case when the next novel comes out, so we shall have to see how it goes from there.

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