Summary: 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.
Thoughts: I listed Traitor’s Blade as one of the best books I read in 2014, and pegged it as one of the most fun fantasy novels in the history of ever. So it’s no surprise to hear that I was extremely excited to be able to read the sequel. A swashbuckling fantasy novel with amazing dialogue and tons of action and intrigue? With a sequel? What could go wrong?
Well, nothing. Knight’s Shadow was everything I expected it to be, and more. Everything I loved about the first book was back for a second round, and one of the problems I had actually vanished. And given that this problem was the inherent weakness of a first-person viewpoint removing some of the long-term tension because you know that the protagonist will make it through anything, I’d have to say that’s very impressive. Only one other novel turned this perception on its head for me, and in retrospect, that was telegraphed by having an alternate third-person viewpoint throughout the story. No such thing in Knight’s Shadow. The story is still told from Falcio’s perspective, but now Falcio is dying of a slow poison, one that is gradually shutting down his body. He wakes in the mornings paralyzed, and for longer each day, and time is running out for him to get Aline on the throne, to find out why Dukes are being murdered, and to discover just how the Greatcoats are involved in a much wider plot than Falcio, if his loyal naiveté, ever imagined.
If you go into this book expecting a straightforward story, you’ll be disappointed. You think the story will largely feature Falcio, Kest, and Brasti going around and trying to convince the Dukes to give their allegiance to Aline, and early on, even I started to expect that this book might come to resembles a series of fetch-quests to gain the Dukes’ favour. But then a Duke and his entire family are murdered, with signs that the Greatcoats may have been behind it. Or possible the Dashini, an ancient order of assassins that have tangled with Falcio in the past. Villages rise to rebel against the tyranny of the Dukes, with weapons that they couldn’t possibly possess. Just when you think that the plot will lead you in one direction, it takes a left turn and leads you down a different road, always throwing up new events and information to keep the reader hanging on, turning pages to find out what twists will come next and where the increasingly complex plot will lead.
This does have its drawbacks, though, since after a while it can get to the point where everything seems so very contrived. Everything works out at the perfect time, no plots really get derailed, and absolutely everything ties in, right down to meeting seemingly random characters who you know are important for a scene and only find out later that they were masterminds behind a major chunk of the overall story. Everything works with timing that stretched credulity, especially given the time crunch that Falcio is on due to the poison destroying him inch by inch.
But the constant connections and the relentless pace of the plot is a large part of what made the story so much fun. With all the talk about how Falcio’s story will be told through the ages, that what they do will ripple down through history, troubadours will tell their story, it fits so well that every part of the story fits perfectly with the other pieces. This is one of those great adventure stories that leaves its impact because it trips all the right triggers, puts the reader into the right receptive mode where they don’t question that, because the point is the adventure, not really the suspense of disbelief it sometimes needs. That’s one of the things I love about it, Traitor’s Blade and Knight’s Shadow both; it’s just a fast-paced fantasy adventure that doesn’t let up, and you enjoy it because you don’t have to sit and figure it all out in the background. The story leads, you follow, caught up in the flow.
While the story is still primarily about Falcio, it also sheds more light on both Kest and Brasti. Brasti, who often came across as the joker who doesn’t take much seriously, is shown to have more depth than you’d expect, and when confronted with devastation, reacts in a thoroughly traumatized way that just broke my heart. Not every hero is a hardened person who can take the murder of innocents with that kind of stoic anger you see so often. And Kest, the Saint of Swords, wrestles with the nature of his Sainthood, trying to balance his urge to seek worthy opponents with his vow to the Greatcoats and his devotion to Falcio. Though we don’t see as much of her development, Valiana goes from someone who had her life turn upside down to someone who is more than willing to pick up a weapon and fight for what’s right, even when it’s the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. The development happens more offscreen, as it were, which is the limit of Falcio’s perspective more than anything else, but it was heartening to see her go from someone with no training to someone who can kick ass and take names when the situation calls for it, someone who can stand up and face down her worst fears.
Something that really caught my attention in Knight’s Shadow was the way people often got angry at Falcio for downplaying his role in things. Falcio insisted that he was nothing special, that he was just the same as any other person. Brasti and Kest, especially, got angry at this, trying to convince him that no, he was at the centre of everything. He was their leader, they followed him, and by insisting he was nothing special, he did a disservice to everyone who couldn’t do the things he could. When you downplay your accomplishments, you — often unintentionally — dig a thorn into the sides of those who don’t have the skill to do the thing you don’t think is worth anything. I’ve been there. I’ve been on both sides of that argument at various times in my life, and I can completely understand where Kest and Brasti were coming from in their arguments.
The thing of it is, I don’t think that was Falcio’s point. Everything centred around him, all plots led back to him, but that didn’t necessarily make him someone who was better than everyone else. Falcio’s point, I think, was that he wasn’t special by default. That people kept doing all this to him, and around him, and he definitely rose to the challenge but doing so wasn’t a singular ability. It wasn’t that he saw himself as nothing special. It was that he saw everyone else as just as special as himself. He stood up to tyranny, and so could others. He fought for what he believed was right, and anyone could do the same. Not that everyone could, but that anyone could. People like him come from everywhere. They’re not born, but made, and anyone, at any time, can become the central figure of a story, the hero in a leather coat who stands up and saves the world because they think the world needs saving.
I have no idea whether that was de Castell’s intention for Falcio. That’s just the way I read him, and in that reading, he became more heroic to me, exactly because heroes like him can come from anywhere, at any time. He became the kind of person I could be, not that I have failed to become.
Now that I’m done applying my own interpretations to character motivation and arguments, I’d like to close by saying that this series is fantastic, and Knight’s Shadow is a brilliant follow-up to Traitor’s Blade. The witty banter between friends is back in full force, you see a greater degree of character development, and the action doesn’t let you go for a moment, making this a terrific adventure for anyone yearning for a solid heroic fantasy that demands little and delivers much. Long live the Greatcoats!
(Received for review from the publisher.)