Tell them the Greatcoats are coming … KNIGHT’S SHADOW by Sebastien de Castell

I’ve read some pretty good books this year, including THE AUTUMN REPUBLIC by Brian McClellan and HALF THE WORLD by Joe Abercrombie, but at this point KNIGHT’S SHADOW has been my most enjoyable read of 2015.

In TRAITOR’S BLADE, the first book in the¬†Greatcoat Quartet, Sebastien de Castell introduced readers to Falcio Val Mond and his friends Kest and Brasti, former leaders of the king’s elite force designed to enforce the laws and ensure justice throughout the kingdom. But before TRAITOR’S BLADE even begins, their king is long dead and the Greatcoats have been disbanded and thoroughly discredited.

In KNIGHT’S SHADOW, Falcio and his friends continue their quest to protect Aline, the daughter of their dead king, and somehow place her on her rightful throne. Even as Falcio battles the growing effects of the poison that will likely take his life within a week, he and his friends race to battle new enemies and figure out who is conspiring to bring chaos and destruction to the countryside.

In the second book of this series, de Castell has streamlined his storytelling, relying less upon the flashback scenes that were so prevalent in TRAITOR’S BLADE. With only the occasional flashbacks to the days when the king was alive, the story flowed more smoothly and de Castell was really able to dive into his noir-style plot. Kest and Brasti also play a larger role in KNIGHT’S SHADOW, and the story is just a hell of a lot more fun when the three of them are together.

Additionally, while de Castell obviously continues to place much of his focus on Falcio, giving Kest and Brasti more clearly defined character arcs. I was actually surprised by how much I liked Brasti by the end of this book, as his arc came naturally to the story and actually tied in very well with the conclusion of the book. While Kest’s arc wasn’t as compelling, the climax of the story leaves me very interested to see where de Castell will take Kest during the next two books of the series.

The women in the story also get fleshed out, as Valiana transitions from the spoiled aristocrat she was in TRAITOR’S BLADE to one of Falcio’s must trusted and loyal companions, of a level with Kest and Brasti, even if she isn’t quite as skilled as those two just yet. Darriana, a newly-introduced character, is equally interesting, and reminds me in some ways of Raina from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Even Ethalia has her moments late in the book, and we begin to realize she may have the potential to be a more powerful player in his world if she chooses.

Though the plots and settings are wildly disparate, KNIGHT’S SHADOW has a very similar tone to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Like the Dresden Files, KNIGHT’S SHADOW has a very noir sensibility, as Falcio and his friends race from one crisis to the next, and while they usually overcome the odds that have been stacked against them, it takes a physical toll on Falcio, who again must trudge through an ocean of physical pain to protect those he cares about.

Even through the pain and the darkness — and make no mistake, these books definitely delve into darker places than the Dresden Files — de Castell does an amazing job of maintaining humor and sparks of inspiration throughout. The bad guys may be unbelievably cruel, but these are ultimately optimistic books fueled by hope, and at times de Castell’s writing — while not necessarily fancy — can get your blood pumping:

The rest of us raced across the room to join Kest: five against seventeen, and most of them in armor. But we had Brasti with his bow and a quiver full of arrows and the Saint of Swords burning with a fire that sang out for Blood.

To mayhem and fighting, I thought.

De Castell is equally adept in the darker scenes, as when Falcio undergoes the Greatcoats’ Lament, a scene foreshadowed in the book’s exceptionally effective prologue (I’m usually not a fan of prologues). By the time the scene is done, you can’t help but be angry on behalf of our hero and disgusted by his enemies. It’s a tragedy you can’t look away from, and de Castell writes the hell out of that scene.

Ultimately, I can’t imagine this book doesn’t make my top three for the year, and it’s going to take a heck of a book to knock it out of the top spot. It blends the wit of the Gentlemen Bastards with the heart of the Dresden Files and the action of the Three Musketeers. I don’t know that I can give this book much higher praise than that.