by Sebastien De Castell
I buy a lot of books and other items from Amazon. It's quick and convenient. Often the prices are better because Amazon doesn't have the well paid labor force, tax liabilities or property, plants and equipment that your local big box or independent bookstore has to carry. However the issue with Amazon or other online retailers is that it's not really easy to just browse books online. Usually when I go online to purchase something I already know exactly what I want. So there's not a big reason to spend a lot of time online. With a physical bookstore it's easier for me to drop in and browse. I can spend hours in a bookstore. And as a result I can find and enjoy books which otherwise I would never ever have read. Traitor's Blade is such a book. It really was as simple as wandering through the fantasy section of my local bookstore and just happening to have my eye fall on this 2014 fantasy novel. That was good luck. This is a solid read. Yes it does initially heavily rely on some tropes and cliches which are well known to any reader of heroic fantasy. It's a crowded field with a long history. But I thought that the author was strong enough to find his own voice. So this book simultaneously feels very comfortable and familiar while being just different enough to justify reading. This book is the first in a trilogy, but I thought it stood on its own. I want to know what happens next. However De Castell ended his story in such a way that I would be content even if I weren't soon going to purchase the next two books. I hope that the remaining books live up to the first one. There are a tremendous number of heroic stories in which the protagonists have been cast out from their promised land, been betrayed in some cruel fashion, or simply have to grow up quickly in a cold cruel world. In Traitor's Blade, the three heroes, Falcio, Kest and Brasti, (the story is told in first person from Falcio's point of view) are Greatcoats. A Greatcoat is effectively a superhero in the low magic Italian Renaissance world which De Castell has created. A Greatcoat is something of a paladin. He, or more rarely she, is a person responsible only to King Paelis. A Greatcoat's job is to travel the land, settle disputes, dispense justice, provide/share education and ensure that everyone understands that the King's Law applies equally to everyone, rich or poor, noble or commoner. Everyone deserves dignity and protection of the law. Fighting is a Greatcoat's last option though they are incredibly skilled at combat. The Greatcoat is so called because of his titular clothing, which serves as a signifier of status, insulation and protection during bad weather, armor, and storage space for all sorts of hidden weapons, papers, devices, potions, etc.
However as you might imagine the powerful nobles of the land really don't like the idea of being subject to the King's law. They are big believers in ducal rights. They think King Paelis is getting too big for his britches. They scorn the concept of protecting the poor. They deny that law is or should be greater than a noble's desire. As one duke says "The law is what I say it is." The dukes firmly believe in the divine rights of nobility to be unfettered by moral or legal concerns. They think that might makes right, at least as long as they have the might. To make this point clear to King Paelis they overthrow him and chop his head off. The Greatcoats have since been disbanded and fallen into disrepute. People think they behaved dishonorably since for some reason they didn't die with their king. Shamefully allegedly some Greatcoats have even gone over to serve the Dukes or turned bandit against the people they were sworn to protect. Falcio, Kest and Brasti may be the last remaining Greatcoats who attempt to live with some modicum of honor. Falcio is the Greatcoat former leader. Normally quite levelheaded and fair minded, Falcio can go berserk if anyone mentions his deceased wife. Kest has been Falcio's best friend since childhood. Kest is also the world's best swordsman. The over serious Kest does not joke and tends to take things literally. Brasti is a good looking ladies man, a humorist and the world's best archer. He does not miss. Ever. Neither Kest nor especially Brasti are shy about letting enemies know how good they are. Brasti brags and boasts. Kest just flatly lets people know. These three men all have secret instructions from the deceased Paelis. They need to find a hidden treasure. But for now they work as bodyguards for merchants. With the death of the king, the realm has fallen into crime and chaos. When a mysterious woman murders their client via apparently magical means and sets them up as patsies, the trio must find other work while staying one step ahead of the authorities. This kicks off a swashbuckling adventure featuring intrigue, wicked femme fatales, wise but irascible old women advisers, political manipulation, magic, incredible duel scenes, and maybe a little love.
The obvious comparison is to Dumas' work like The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo but the narrative is not as complex and the description is not as dense. I think there's also a shout out to The Princess Bride. Kest and Brasti are not fleshed out as much as Falcio. De Castell details the essentially arbitrary nature of authority based on hereditary inheritance and/or violence. There are plenty of bad guys and bad girls in this story but there's also good as well. To Brasti's annoyance, Falcio usually insists on doing the right thing even when it doesn't make sense, no one else is watching or it's downright suicidal. This is not uber dark reading. At about 400 pages it's not super long either. I enjoyed this story.