The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded and Falcio Val Mond and fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards for a nobleman who refuses to pay them. Things could be worse – their employer could be lying dead on the floor while the three of them are forced to watch as the killer plants evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that’s exactly what’s happenly…
A royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world and it could mean the ruin of everything Falcio, Kest and Brasti have fought for. If the trio want to unwind the conspiracy, save the innocents and reunite the Greatcoats, they’ll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor’s blade.
De Castell’s debut novel is an entry into a couple of long traditions; the swashbuckling cavalier tradition going back at least as far as Alexandre Dumas, with obvious debts to the Musketeers; the grimdark tradition in its form that extends back to Robin Hobb; and the ragtag group of seemingly-hopeless heroes in a corrupt world, managing to do good more by luck than intent in a tradition that takes in Glen Cook’s Black Company novels. Of course, putting all those authors in a blender would give you a bit of a mishmash of a novel, and Traitor’s Blade, for it’s faults, is no palimpsetic hackjob.
The plot is relatively simple and overall hangs together and works. Different timelines intersect in a way we’re very familiar now, flashbacks elucidating the present whilst revealing the past, but that de Castell can work such a common trick so well is a sign of good writing; the first-person narration of the flashbacks and the present are in a subtly different voice, showing a fantastic control on de Castell’s part. However, much of the plot hangs on a couple of bits of narrative magic designed to keep the characters uninformed whilst the reader makes key deductions; this grows increasingly frustrating when we see the characters make the deductions and immediately be forced to forget them, and I wonder if a better book might have simply followed on from the intelligence of the characters, rather than keeping them in the dark.
The characterisation is the strongest aspect of the novel; Falcio, Kest, Brasti all have different personalities, ones that draw on but do not simply map to Dumas’ trio; they all have their own histories, about which we know varying amounts, their own motivations, and perhaps most vitally their own voices. Similarly, the rest of the cast – from the utterly villainous Patriana and her daughter to the stout Feltock and the child Aline – each has a fully fleshed out personality and human motivations, even if they seem abhorrent to the reader. It’s that combination of a mix of villains, from the vain and foolish to the downright sadistic and ruthless, that really makes Traitor’s Blade‘s multiple antagonists work beautifully, while the different personalities of the heroes mesh fantastically as a trio.
Finally, there’s worldbuilding to consider. Women play a variety of roles in de Castell’s world, including farming, defending their estates… and although we don’t meet any of them, it is noted multiple times that a proportion of the 144 original Greatcoats were female. This, despite the essentially feudal world largely unchanged by magic and very reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire’s Electors, shows a certain imaginative reach that many secondary-world fantasists fail to achieve, so I am especially pleased to see it here; kudos to de Castell for such a well-constructed world, though I hope we’ll see more of the female Greatcoats in future series.
Indeed, I hope we see more of many of the elements of this novel in future series; although not flawless, it is an excellent debut and heartily recommended.