Tristia is a nation overcome by intrigue and corruption. The idealistic young King Paelis is dead and the Greatcoats – legendary travelling magistrates who brought justice to the Kingdom – have been branded as traitors. But just before his head was impaled on a spike, the King swore each of his hundred and forty-four Greatcoats to a different mission.
Falcio Val Mond, First Cantor, with the help of fellow Greatcoats Kest and Brasti, has completed his King’s final task: he has found his Charoites – well, one at least, and she was not quite what they expected. Now they must protect the girl from the many who would see her dead, and place her on the throne of a lawless kingdom. That would be simple enough, if it weren’t for the Daishini, an equally legendary band of assassins, getting in their way, not to forget the Dukes who are determined to hold on to their fractured Kingdoms, or the fact that the heir to the throne is only thirteen years old. Oh, and the poison that is slowly killing Falcio.
That’s not even mentioning the Greatcoat’s Lament…
Sebastien de Castell’s debut, Traitor’s Blade, is one of my favourite novels from 2014 — it was fast-paced, swashbuckling, interesting and well-written. It brought back some of the fun to fantasy, while remaining somewhat (grim)dark. It was with much anticipation, therefore, that I dove in to Knight’s Shadow very shortly after I got my hands on a copy. Right from the start, we learn that this is a far more substantial, ambitious novel.
I’m going to keep this relatively short, as I want to avoid spoilers where possible. Knight’s Shadow is about half again as longer as Traitor’s Blade. When I first saw the size of the hardcover, I was quite pleased by the prospect of reading a more substantial novel set in de Castell’s world, featuring his engaging, varied characters. After finishing, I am of two minds about the added length.
First of all, de Castell packs in a lot of story — a lot happens, there are many switcheroos, and a few red herrings. The three core, original Greatcoats at the centre of our band of heroes — Falcio, Brasti and Kest — really get put through their paces, suffer a lot of abuse (physical and emotional), and also do one hell of a lot of travelling. This allows for a great amount of character development as well as story development. And, certainly, events move forward quite a bit. (While there is a third novel planned, this could also work quite well as an ambiguous ending.) The three Greatcoats are interesting and engaging guides to this setting, and while the novel is told entirely from Falcio’s perspective, we learn a lot about them and their companions — including Aline, the heir to the throne; the new Greatcoat and formerly fake princess Valiana; the Tailor, with her hidden agenda and single-minded determination to protect her granddaughter at all cost. Even secondary and fleeting characters are interesting and well-drawn.
That being said, because there’s so much story crammed into these 600 pages, the momentum is a little off. Knight’s Shadow is not nearly as tightly written/plotted as Traitor’s Blade. There were plenty of chapters, or groups of chapters during which I was hooked, utterly engrossed in de Castell’s storytelling. But then, all to often, a following chapter would slam on the breaks, or give a strange amount of attention to an event or scene that could have been cut or pruned considerably. I couldn’t escape the feeling that de Castell managed to do more with less in his debut.
The author injects plenty of ambiguity into the story, as well as onto the world’s past. As the characters experience ever-more-brutal set backs, they start to question themselves, their memories of the King, their purpose. Falcio in particular, who has always been self-deprecating to a fault, experiences the most self-doubt. There are betrayals aplenty (some might think a couple too many), less swashbuckling action, but a lot more mystery. There are multiple factions, working towards their own ends, strings manipulated by any number of nefarious power players. I liked the scope of the story, and the way de Castell maneuvered his characters to the final confrontation and short conclusion. I enjoyed the fact that de Castell doesn’t explain everything — save for a few early passages, there was no info-dumping (or, if there was, it was expertly woven into the story and didn’t come across that way). I even enjoyed the fact that, in one way or another, each character is sometimes unpleasant, unheroic, selfish. Even Falcio, who is as near a paragon of virtue as one can find in Tristia, is flawed. His apparent lack of awareness of his awesomeness and virtue, however, saves him from becoming a lame Awesome Hero. The villains are not cartoony, and a handful of them go through realistic shifts in character, grounded in events and justifiable. But, of course, not too transformative. The Duke of Rijou, for example, will likely always be an arsehole…
Overall, then, Knight’s Shadow is a solid follow-up, but one that suffered a bit from the author’s considerable ambition (and ambition is not a bad thing to have by any means). I know I’ve focused a bit more on the ‘negative’ side in the review, but this is because they are flaws that were almost entirely absent from Traitor’s Blade. There’s still plenty to love in the novel, but given its uneven momentum, it doesn’t deliver as powerful or immediate an impact as Traitor’s Blade. It was only after finishing that I could really appreciate the scope of the novel.
This second novel is grimmer, certainly, and de Castell does a good job of keeping his characters three-dimensional and complex: even the sweetest can make bad decisions — decisions that have deadly or devastating results on their compatriots.
I’m still very eager to read the third novel, and will always love the first instalment. Indeed, I would still very much recommend the series to anyone looking for a well-written fantasy series. With luck, the final novel will deliver on the promise of this ambitious, twisty fantasy series.
Knight’s Shadow is out now in the UK, published by Jo Fletcher Books; it will be published in the US by Jo Fletcher Books in June 2015, and in Canada as Greatcoat’s Lament by Penguin, on April 28th, 2015.