Falcio Val Mond may live in a corrupt world, but that doesn’t mean his story can’t be a whole hell of a lot of fun.
With TRAITOR’S BLADE, the first book in Sebastien De Castell’s Greatcoat Quartet, Castell pulls the impressive balancing act of offering the quick wit, camaraderie and joy of swordplay and action along with meaningful characterizations and an unflinching look at a fantasy world where the ruling class can be petty and cruel and no one — men, women or children — are truly safe from the horrors of that cruelty.
Falcio is the former leader of a disgraced group of swordsmen called the Greatcoats, an elite force serving the king and, more importantly, the king’s laws, standing up for the rights of the little guy against the money and power of the nobles. But when the story begins, the king is dead, and based upon his command, Falcio and the Greatcoats stepped aside when the nobles came to overthrow him, earning them condemnation from the very people they once served.
Falcio and his two friends — evoking memories of Alexander Dumas’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS — have been reduced to taking jobs as common bodyguards while seeking the king’s chariots (if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry — neither do they). It’s a job that winds up pulling them back into a clash with the noble class and protecting a young girl who has been marked for death.
The whole book is something of a balancing act, as De Castell mingles the present plot with frequent flashbacks, a technique that usually backfires as either the past or present tends to overshadow the other. But in TRAITOR’S BLADE, the flashbacks serve to illuminate the characters and the world they live in, and are interesting enough that they don’t take away from the story’s momentum.
For the most part, the flashbacks serve to demonstrate how vile the noble class is and why Falcio is so determined to fight them. Even as Falcio trades barbs and battles villains, we learn from the flashbacks that he wasn’t always the confident swordsman we know. We see the death of his wife, his period of madness afterwards and see how he first met the king and began the Greatcoats. Somehow, De Castell blends heroics, humor and death, and the moments of failure and hopelessness are just as well-written as the moments in which Falcio emerges triumphant. The darkest parts are as grim as anything you can find in fantasy, but De Castell balances that darkness with the humor and charisma of Falcio and his friends.
Just as good are some of the underlying themes. The Greatcoats are committed to their honor, but they are despised everywhere they go. When recognized, they are considered the least honorable people in every room they enter, a daily irony that weighs on them all.
The last Fey horse proves a terrifying addition late in the story, demonstrating the sheer madness of Falcio’s nemesis and showing the reader just how much of this world’s beauty has already been lost, regardless of the Greatcoats’ efforts.
The story takes place in a world in which single-shot firearms exist, indicating that while the Greatcoats and their rapiers still have a place in this world, but that whatever new world they hope to create, it will be a world in which their swordsmanship is no longer as valuable as it once was — once men develop guns capable of multiple shots without reloading. No matter what happens, the story’s protagonists all have an expiration date. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether they’ll live long enough to realize that their swords are about to become outdated.
TRAITOR’S BLADE is exactly the type of fantasy book I enjoy — a witty, fast-action story with substance behind the veneer. It’s a balancing act that De Castell pulled off perfectly.