Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, 606 pages
Following his beloved debut, Traitor's Blade, Sebastien de Castell returns with volume two of his fast-paced fantasy adventure series, inspired by the swashbuckling action and witty banter of The Three Musketeers. Knight's Shadow continues the series with a thrilling and dark tale of heroism and betrayal in a country crushed under the weight of its rulers' corruption.
A few days after the horrifying murder of a duke and his family, Falcio val Mond, swordsman and First Cantor of the Greatcoats, begins a deadly pursuit to capture the killer. But Falcio soon discovers his own life is in mortal danger from a poison administered as a final act of revenge by one of his deadliest enemies. As chaos and civil war begin to overtake the country, Falcio has precious little time left to stop those determined to destroy his homeland.
As much as I liked the first book in this series, I felt like book two was sort of churning out more of the same old plot, and while I definitely want to continue the series, I am not as enthused as I was after finishing Traitor's Blade. I think in large part this was because while in the first book, the banter, high adventure, and heroism of the protagonists made up for the superficiality of the setting, in book two the flaws in de Castell's worldbuilding are exacerbated by his desire to make everything GRIMMER and DARKER.
His debut novel was a band of merry adventurers hacking and slashing their way across a pre-Enlightenment psuedo-European pastiche. The Greatcoats, former Magistrates under an idealistic young king whose reign lasted about five minutes on a historical scale, are now vilified and hunted by the corrupt and oppressive dukes of Tristia. While the Greatcoats only superficially resemble the Three Musketeers, de Castell definitely seems to have modeled his dastardly villains on Dumas archetypes; male and female alike, they are all cackling, monologue-spouting villainous villains indeed, with seemingly little other motivation than to crush all who oppose them beneath their iron heels.
And that was the problem with the second book. I mentioned in my review of book one that this is a not-Europe with the trappings of European feudalism (knights and dukes, honor and fealty, etc.), except in neither book does there seem to be any reason why anyone would dedicate themselves so devoutly to any sort of code of honor. There is no religion to speak of (there are "saints," who are a significant plot device in this book, and various gods who seem to operate offstage if at all), so no real Church except in the sense that some vaguely AD&D-ish clerical character classes exist. There are also "Dashini assassins," who operate like some sort of fanatical ninja or Hashishim clan, occupying the same mythological niche and being entirely inexplicable in the context of this pseudo-European setting.
So, I'm being kind of negative here, but Knight's Shadow was actually a good story, entertaining and full of adventures and betrayals and double and triple crosses, and you can see that the author is working on building some longer arcs and explanations for all the elements he's dropped into this renaissance/medieval crock pot of fantasy adventure tropes, but he hasn't gotten there yet.
Other than an insufficiently developed setting, my other complaint is that de Castell really does seem to be going to George R.R. Martin route. I am not comparing these books to Game of Thrones — I haven't read those. But there was a much older Martin series, Wild Cards, which I really liked for a dozen books or so, but it got really, really dark, and at some points it seemed like the various authors contributing to that shared universe were competing to see who could slaughter beloved characters in the most grisly, nightmarish fashion imaginable.
De Castell actually kills off very few main characters. His chief villains have to stay around to plague the heroes in the next book, and his heroes, well, they're heroes and seem to have authorial immunity. To death, that is, but instead the main character, Falcio val Mond, spends nine days being subjected to graphically described torture, including being forced to relive the rape and murder of his wife, which is "replayed" for him thanks to some gratuitous psychic mumbo jumbo.
Meanwhile, just about every duke and knight we meet in Tristia is an egotistical monster who views everyone else as sword-fodder. No noblesse oblige or even a dim awareness that peasants have to have some sense of safety and stability to be productive. Basically, pretty much everyone sucks.
And that's fine for high adventure in a crapsack world, but it gets old after a while, which is why I am hoping Sebastian de Castell pulls something a bit more creative and game-changing for book three.
Also by Sebastien de Castell: My review of Traitor's Blade.
My complete list of book reviews.