A great blade has to be sharp, sure, but it needs a bit of weight as well—heft enough to fend off the weapons of enemies. You don’t want your hardware to be too heavy, however: it needs to be perfectly balanced between point and pommel. In addition, a good grip is worth investing in, because if you can’t hold onto your sword properly, what’s the point of wearing one, I wonder?
Once you can be assured that your weapon attends to the necessaries aforementioned, there are a few other things worth considering. For starters, size certainly matters… which isn’t to say bigger is always better. In some situations, a small sword—say a rapier—is markedly more suitable than a sabre. The accessibility of your blade is also important; you probably want to have it handy. Last but not least, I dare say a little decoration goes a long way, so long as it’s tasteful.
These are all qualities Sebastien de Castell hones to a piercing point over the course of his swashbuckling first fantasy. Like the sword its disgraced protagonist carries, Traitor’s Blade is short and sharp and smart, and very well wielded, really.
Our man is Falcio val Mond, the First Cantor of the Greatcoats: an elite legion once held in high regard as “legendary sword-wielding magistrates who travelled from the lowliest village to the biggest city, ensuring that any man or woman, high or low, had recourse to the King’s laws.” In the years since he took up the titular trench in a fit of fury following the butchering of his beloved, Falcio been seen as “a protector to many—maybe even a hero to some,” but everything’s different when Traitor’s Blade begins.
The King is dead—deposed by the brutal Dukes who rule Tristia today—and the Greatcoats were his dream, really. Absent his influence, they’ve fallen out of favour. The formerly mighty magistrates are known now as Trattari, which is to say traitors… and it’s true, too: to Falcio’s frustration, they did nothing while their master was murdered.
That they were following orders even then, at the terrible end of their assembly, is neither here nor there in the eyes of the masses. “The Greatcoats were disgraced and disbanded and it felt as if most people would rather see their child dead at the hand of a Knight than saved by that of a Trattari.” Indeed, that’s exactly what happens in an early example of how absolutely abhorred they are by the people they expected to protect.
No-one will have them, now. No-one except a nobleman who’s hired Falcio and his companions Kest and Brasti on as bodyguards. A rare arrangement which ends, well… terribly:
Whoever had killed Lord Caravaner Tremondi had worked out their plan perfectly. Everybody knew he was rich and everyone knew his bodyguards were Greatcoats. It wasn’t hard to believe that three Trattari would kill their employer to take his money. If we were caught, no one was likely to believe us, and if we escaped—well, that just proved our guilt, didn’t it? Either way, the murderer was completely free of suspicion. She was probably walking around the city right now, enjoying the rest of her day.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Falcio and friends barter for passage with a caravan which just so happens to be carrying the Lady Valiana, the daughter of two lofty royals who hope to consolidate their power over the people by installing her as a puppet princess.
Traitor’s Blade has a number of other surprises in store, if not a whole lot of plot. The larger part of the narrative is in fact something of a distraction from the text’s central concerns. Falcio is supposed to be seeking out the King’s Chariotes—though he doesn’t know what they are, far less where to start looking. Instead, he finds himself in a “hopeless place, trying vainly to keep a doomed little girl alive for no better reason than that she shared the same name as my dead wife.”
Taken in tandem with a fair few flashbacks, this lengthy diversion serves to add depth and texture to Falcio’s character, and in said section de Castell takes some time to develop his world as well, which “was probably a nice place once but had now gone to rot.” Unfortunately the prominence of this predictable plot is a problem in terms of the greater tale’s pace. Traitor’s Blade is already short by fantasy standards, and the middle’s meandering nearly dispels the tension that’s been building before the travellers arrive at Rijou.
It’s as well that things pick up again at the end—not coincidentally when our hero finally flees this hub of corruption—but the scope of the story as a whole does suffers from this sidetrack. In every other respect, however, de Castell’s debut impresses. Like last year’s Drakenfeld, it’s a refreshingly optimistic novel overall, sparkling with wit rather than grounded in grit. The humour’s a little lewd, but barely a page in I found myself grinning over the consequences of a concoction Kest swallows to keep his sword-arm strong:
“I used it to fighting off half a dozen assassins who were trying to kill a witness.”
“And did it work?” I asked.
Kest shrugged. “Couldn’t really tell. There were only six of them, after all, so it wasn’t much of a test. I did have a substantial erection the whole time though.”
Fantasy is often so self-serious that I for one welcome this sort of silliness, and say what you may about taste, this author certainly has “a sense of humour, of style.” That latter aspect is evidenced in frequent fight scenes which put me in mind of Sharps by the masterful K. J. Parker—as did the snappy banter between our three musketeers.
With a tip of his hat at Alexandre Dumas, Sebastien de Castell make a fine first impression in this entertaining debut. Excepting the regrettable digression at its centre—and even then it’s easy reading—Traitor’s Blade is a bunch of fun from one cover to the other. Recommended especially to readers who’ve had it up to here with unhappy heroes.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.