I enjoyed this - immensely at times - but I find myself oddly conflicted as to how much I really liked it. I suspect it's one of those books where my appreciation will grow over time, but where my first impressions are somewhat challenged by some of its more unexpected elements.
If you've read any of the promotional blurbs or advance reviews for Traitor's Blade, then you know Sebastien de Castell has successful served up a swashbuckling historical fantasy that's adventurous, thrilling, and often darkly humorous. It's also, however, a story that I found to be very cruel and depressing in a number of places, which unfortunately dampens my enthusiasm a bit. Having said that, the fact that the cruelty affected me so, getting so effectively under my skin, says a lot for Sebastien's storytelling prowess.
In terms of structure, this is book that is heavily dependent upon flashbacks. In fact, for the first half of the novel, I found the flashbacks infinitely more fascinating than the main story, and was actually impatient to do away with current events and get back to the history. Let's be honest, when you're dealing with a group of fallen heroes like the Greatcoats, the mystery behind how and why they've fallen so far is going to consume your imagination. There is, however, a definite point at which the main story catches up, and that is when Falcio is left to stand guard over a young girl, alone against the world, in a week during which blood must run freely. After that, it's very much a running battle to determine which aspect of the tale is the strongest.
My main issue with the present tale is that it felt as if too much of the main story was being kept from us, and I don't like being kept in the dark. I generally prefer a story with a defined quest to be attained or a clear conflict to be resolved, and I struggled with that here. If the early flashbacks and the mystery of the Greatcoats' fall hadn't been so compelling, I'm not sure I would have stuck with the tale. Once again, having said that, the way all the pieces fell into place was highly entertaining, and I completely appreciated just how many of the seemingly disconnected story threads were leading to the same climax. There was a bit of a fate/destiny cheat involved there, in my opinion, but not enough to completely derail the success of the telling.
One thing with which I am not all conflicted in my admiration for the conflict itself. Yes, this is a swashbuckling tale, and the swordplay is exquisite. I often find myself skimming through extended fight scenes, more interested in the dialogue than the dance of swords, but Sebastien absolutely demands that you dance with him. As we find out later in the story, there's a language to the dance of swords, and it really does feel as if part of the telling here is in the fighting. Exceptionally well-choreographed, the duels and battles are something you desperately want to see on the big screen.
As for the characters, they're conflicted themselves, but strong, fascinating, and well-developed. Heroes and villains alike are immediately identifiable, memorable, and entertaining. Falcio is more conflicted than most, and I fully expected his angry sort of self-pity party to become tiresome, but somehow Sebastien sustains it through more than one grand moment of transformation. A tragic hero in every sense of the word, we come to understand that his motives aren't always as grand as he'd have others believe, but they're nothing for which we can possibly fault him. Duchess Patriana, meanwhile, is an absolutely perfect antagonist, falling just shy of cartoon or fairy tale villainy. She's cruel, conniving, and as intelligent as she is imaginative. This is a woman to be honestly feared as well as hated, and she is largely responsible for making the second half of the tale so entertaining.
Like a number of other reads from the past few years, I suspect the best is yet to come for Sebastien de Castell. With the world and the characters established, and the storytelling expectations set, I suspect whatever follows Traitor's Blade will be a better, stronger, less conflicted pleasure.
Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: July 15th 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books