Saint’s Blood, by Sebastien de Castell

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Publication date – June 7, 2016

Summary: How do you kill a Saint?

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are about to find out, because someone has figured out a way to do it and they’ve started with a friend.

The Dukes were already looking for ways out of their agreement to put Aline on the throne, but with the Saints turning up dead, rumours are spreading that the Gods themselves oppose her ascension. Now churches are looking to protect themselves by bringing back the military orders of religious soldiers, assassins, and (especially) Inquisitors – a move that could turn the country into a theocracy. The only way Falcio can put a stop to it is by finding the murderer. He has only one clue: a terrifying iron mask which makes the Saints vulnerable by driving them mad. But even if he can find the killer, he’ll still have to face him in battle.

And that may be a duel that no swordsman, no matter how skilled, can hope to win.

Review: Tristia is falling even more into chaos, and the weight of fixing it lies on the shoulders on Falcio and his companions. Aline is so young to rule, and yet she must stand up and be the queen few people want her to be. Falcio himself has terrible flashbacks to his time being tortured, yet can’t leave things alone and is constantly pushing himself past his limits in the attempt to improve his land on the orders of a dead king. Ethalia’s role in the world changes dramatically, much to her consternation and confusion. Kest’s ability to use swords is waning. Brasti is, as ever, Brasti. And as if that all wasn’t enough, now along comes a new threat in the form of monotheistic zealots who feel no pain and are inhumanly strong, seeking to destroy the Saints and to establish a theocracy in Tristia instead.

Myself, I love reading books that involve twists on religion, especially when those twists show what can happen when religion gets out of hand. Bonus points for throwing in the debate over whether deities were there before people prayed to them, or whether people prayed to them so they were created (like a far more metaphysical “chicken or egg” issue). That de Castell does just those things in Saint’s Blood makes me very inclined to like it, and I’d probably do so whether or not I’d enjoyed the first two books in the series beforehand.

As with the previous books, I absolutely adore the dialogue, especially between Falcio, Brasti, and Kest. The way they banter and play off each other is a real treat to read, and it makes me grin a lot. True, some of the jokes get a little old since they’re played so often (in particular, the long-running gag about Brasti not being able to find the right word for what he wants to express), but even that’s not overdone to the point where all the humour is lost. But the interplay between those three characters is superb, and does so much to really drive home the idea that they’re comfortable around each other and have worked together for a long time. They have the banter of friends, of long-time colleagues, and it’s great to read.

De Castell has great skill with writing a complex story that slowly reveals itself piece by piece. As opposed to some books I’ve read, which have an equally complex and multilayered story as Saint’s Blood, the book isn’t spent drowning the reader in unfathomable acts which only make sense once the final reveal has happened. There’s nothing wrong with that method of storytelling per se, and it can make for a great reread so that you can see events unfold with the end knowledge in mind, but I vastly prefer books where I figure things out only a few pages before the characters themselves do. It feels a lot like I’m on the journey with them, invested as much as they are, and they’re trying to puzzle things out in the same way that I am. It keeps me invested in the progression, the story as both a whole and a series of steps, and the way the plot with God’s Needles was uncovered was just wonderful. It takes skill to peel back the layers little by little without revealing too much, and still while having it all make sense.

It’s worth taking time to examine more of Falcio’s character here, because he’s evolved a fair bit from the opening scenes of Traitor’s Blade. He still carries much of his naivete with him, clinging to ideals that aren’t necessarily attainable no matter how hard he tries, and on some level that’s commendable, because it means he’s not willing to easily compromise the things he holds dear. On the other hand, it was very nice to see people try to hammer home that the past isn’t always appropriate to the present, that things need to change going forward instead of returning to what was behind, and that sometimes what you’re holding onto are idealized versions that you’ve built up in your mind, the epitome of everything you want that thing to be instead of a reflection of reality. Falcio’s process of slowly absorbing this lesson was both heartbreaking and gratifying; it meant letting go of some aspects of the past that he loved and held close to himself, but it was also an awakening for him, seeing what could be done with reality instead of uncompromising ideals that nobody can live up to.

That’s a big theme throughout Saint’s Blood, not surprisingly. Learning to let go. Not just with Falcio, but with most of the main cast. Kest had to let go of who he was to find who he had become. Valiana had to let go of her stifling protection and embrace madness in order to overcome it and find her strength. Ethalia had to let go of her assumptions about her Sainthood in order to properly embody it.

The ending was just beautiful, and I was on the edge of my seat while reading it. The old drops away to reveal the new, whatever it’s worth. The future of Tristia isn’t assured, and it’s not pretty, but so much has changed and all anyone can do is try to move forward, even if it means leaving things behind and learning to live with how they’ and the people around them have changed. I could practically hear the triumphant soundtrack as the Greatcoats find their new roles and new purpose as they take down the newly-created god and the Blacksmith. The way de Castell writes it all, from Falcio’s perspective but still not revealing everything that Falcio knows until it would have great dramatic effect, adds a lot to the scene, and it all came together in something that made me want to cheer for the heroes as they fought their greatest battle.

Between that and the exploration of religious zealotry and the lengths to which people will go to achieve their goals (misguided or otherwise), Saint’s Blood remains the fun epic adventure that the previous books in the series were. I’m fairly hooked on Falcio’s adventures and misadventures, I adore the dialogue, and the humour in the book is top notch. This is the kind of series that takes the epic adventures that children want and scales it up for adults, and it’s rewarding and unfailingly entertaining. De Castell is a master of adventure, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Knight’s Shadow, by Sebastien de Castell

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Publication date – June 2, 2015

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.)

Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 4, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Falcio is the first Cantor of the Greatcoats. Trained in the fighting arts and the laws of Tristia, the Greatcoats are travelling Magisters upholding King’s Law. They are heroes. Or at least they were, until they stood aside while the Dukes took the kingdom, and impaled their King’s head on a spike.

Now Tristia is on the verge of collapse and the barbarians are sniffing at the borders. The Dukes bring chaos to the land, while the Greatcoats are scattered far and wide, reviled as traitors, their legendary coats in tatters.

All they have left are the promises they made to King Paelis, to carry out one final mission. But if they have any hope of fulfilling the King’s dream, the divided Greatcoats must reunite, or they will also have to stand aside as they watch their world burn…

Thoughts:  Sebastien de Castell’s debut novel is marked as one of the most fun books I’ve read so far this year. Granted, we’re only 2 months into the year, but my experience tells me that I’ll probably be saying the very same thing come December. Traitor’s Blade is often called “swashbuckling,” and it’s the kind of book that renews your faith that  old-style adventure stories can still be told and told well.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Falcio val Mond, a Greatcoat and servant of the murdered King Paelis, one who has sworn himself to uphold justice and spread the King’s Laws across the land, even after his death. The Dukes of the land hold ultimate and abusive power over their territories, and Falcio and his companions seek to right wrongs, fight injustice, and stay alive in the process. The story alternates between the primary plot and flashbacks to Falcio’s earlier life, interactions with the King, and flashes of memories of events that made him the damaged and driven man he is.

Interesting for a first-person viewpoint, the story is told as though, well, a story is being told. While the focus is seeing events through Falcio’s eyes and being privy to his thoughts and observations, the book also takes a step back every now and again to explain things to the reader, as though Falcio is very much aware that he’s telling the tale to someone and not just living it. I actually don’t see this done very often, but I found that it worked quite well here. My biggest complaint about the first person POV is that it’s nearly always written in ways that people don’t actually thinking, mentally describing details that people take in but don’t dwell on or take time to really notice but are still given for the sake of setting a scene well. Having Falcio address the reader now and again makes the viewpoint, and all the description and detail that goes with it, make perfect sense in context.

But above all else, the dialogue really makes this book shine. The banter between Falcio, Kest, and Brasti was a treat to read, their words flowing easily and well, as they should between years-old friends who know each other and have been through much together. It’s joked that Falcio talks too much, and that’s certainly evident in the way he throws his sharp and sarcastic wit around in tense situations. De Castell has amazing talent when it comes to realistic dialogue, though there was one small exception: Aline. It was very easy to forget that she was only supposed to be 13, since most of the time she talked like an adult. I understand that she was a special case and often flipped between being wise beyond her years and being normal and childish, but much of her dialogue felt like it was coming from someone fully grown and experienced with the world, and it made her character seem less believable.

I can’t even say that the novel’s main weakness was that it was too predictable. Granted, even through the fast-paced and fluid fight scenes, there wasn’t much tension, solely due to the first-person viewpoint. You know that no matter how injured Falcio gets, no matter what seems to happen, Falcio’s going to find a way out because the book’s nowhere near over. This is a flaw with that viewpoint. It can throw a reader right into the thick of things, but it can remove some of the tension of an uncertain future.

(Though I admit, I really thought the author was going to completely turn that assumption on its head during that last couple of chapters, and I couldn’t read fast enough to find out what was going to happen! But if there’s any place to do that, it’s at the end of a novel.)

But in spite of that particular lack of tension, the plot itself was full of twists and turns and unexpected events that made things extremely compelling. You think the story will be largely about one thing, and then something changes to throw the characters into another political plot arc, which leads them to a deeper conspiracy than they originally thought, and so on. Far from being a convoluted mess, it was very coherent, and the more vague aspects were hints at something that’s likely to get revealed in more detail later in, giving readers a hook to keep on going with the Greatcoats series.

The action really doesn’t stop for any major length of time; Falcio and his companions seem to go from one fight to another, and if not, they’re instead going from fighting to fleeing with danger hot on their tails. The witty dialogue coming from well-developed realistic characters will have you forgetting just how much time has passed while you immerse yourself in the world within the book’s pages. If you want a novel that doesn’t let up, doesn’t really slow down or suffer from dull moments, then Traitor’s Blade is a fantasy offering you should be reading. It will pull you in and refuse to let you do, and you can join me in waiting for the inevitable sequel. Sebastien de Castell has a new fan, and I can’t wait to see more of his talent and wit.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)