Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: The Red Knight

It's still very early in the year, but we've already got a fantasy debut that seems poised to challenge the established ranks of the epic fantasy pantheon.  Enter Miles Cameron and his fantasy debut, the first book in the Traitor Son Cycle, The Red Knight.

The Red Knight isn't just the name of this book, it's also the name of the main character.  He's the leader of a band of mercenaries who have been hired by an abbess and her convent of nuns to protect them from the dangers of the wild.  The wild is an unruly expanse of the map where dangerous creatures, be they wyverns, irks, boglins, and other creatures of nightmare live.  It appears one of these fearful beasts has been causing problems in the lands around the nunnery, and the Red Knight and his soldiers have been hired to defeat the beast.

However, it looks like the mercenaries might be in for more than what appears to be a tidy profit, and the company of comely novices.  The creatures of the wild are out in force, with a malevolent, magical being pulling the strings. With help from the king and his knights days, possibly weeks, away, it's up to the Red Knight to devise a defense of the abbey against not only the hordes of the wild, but a magical onslaught from an unknown powerful being.

From the get-go it is pretty clear to see that Miles Cameron does a lot of things right with The Red Knight. First off, he sets his story in a very realistic medieval setting, albeit one with lots of crazy monsters hanging around.  For the first time since I read Mary Gentle's Ash I felt like a writer provided an accurate depiction of medieval arms, armor, and the mercenary life-style.  This quality came through clearest during battles or action scenes where the fighting was visceral and bloody...exactly how you might expect things to go when sharp, pointy bladed things are the weapons of choice.  On a personal note, I also liked how Cameron didn't treat horses as something the heroes can just hop on and make a charge to glory.  The war horses got appropriately tired from charging with a shit-ton of armor, and an armored dude on their backs. A small thing sure, but it was a detail I appreciated and added a nice layer of realism.

Mary Gentle's Ash wasn't the only work of fantasy this book reminded of. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself finding some parallels between The Red Knight and the works of Steven Erikson.

The Red Knight doesn't start out nearly as complex, or on such a huge scale as Erikson's stuff, but it definitely builds in complexity, and depth as the story progresses.  What begins as a tightly focused siege tale in an analog for medieval England soon expands to include Galle, a very French-like country, as well as some locales and characters with middle-eastern influences, and the Sossag people who reminded me in some ways of Native American/First Nations people.

Another aspect that gave me fond reminiscences of Erikson is that Cameron definitely went for the grand conversion ending where all his plot threads came together in one epic, and deafening crush of action of mayhem.  I loved it. Sure, he didn't pull it all together as craftily as Erikson, (who could?) but it works pretty damn well, and I was impressed.

In addition to a wide range of people and cultures that come into play, there's also some impressive and devastating magic in this world that Miles Cameron has crafted.  The magic system, which is based on hermeticism,  is one that struck me as pretty unique to the fantasy genre, but I was never quite sure I understood just how it all worked.  Granted, this is only the opening novel in a series, and not everything can or should be explained in the first book. I'm willing to give Cameron a pass on this one as I think more exposure to the magic system would lead to a greater understanding.

I'm always a stickler for great characters, and Cameron did pretty well in that regards here too. Though this is a book of knights and ladies, there isn't a true "hero" in the King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table sense. Most everyone in The Red Knight, with a few exceptions, is more gray than clearly black or white.   I can't say that I was an instant fan of too many of these characters, but I definitely acquired a taste for more than a few of them.  By the end, there were a few whose viewpoint sections I came to look forward to.

I wouldn't be the person, or the reviewer that I am, if I didn't mention the creatures of the wild.  I love crazy beasts and monsters.  Oh, sure the creatures of the wild are fairly standard fantasy fare; irks and boglins sure sound an awful lot like orcs and goblins.  Not to mention we've got trolls, wyverns, and even a dragon. But you know what? That's fine. Why reinvent the wheel?  It's how you use them, and Cameron did a pretty damn good job of that. Yes, the irks and boglins were mostly used as sword fodder, but the larger beasts were quite awesome, gruesome and terrifying.  And intelligent. Which made for some really great monster fights.

Though there's a lot to like about The Red Knight, I found myself hung up on one key factor: That there isn't a lot about the plot that seems new.  You've got a giant siege, the "good guys" are out numbered and out-gunned, or more accurately, out-magicked, and there's a super-powerful evil tree-wizard trying to take over the world.  As I was reading, I kept wanting Cameron to steer the story away from those classic story elements, but the more I read, the more I discovered the direction towards a been-there-done-that plot was inevitable.   This led to a large degree of predictability for the story, and caused my interest to flag in the second half of the book.

The predictability and standard plot wasn't a total deal breaker for me though. Cameron still delivered enough great action and monster fights for me to be pretty well entertained from start to finish.  That being said, in a book that had a lot to like, I still found myself wanting more.

Despite drawbacks, The Red Knight is a fantasy that will likely find it's way into many hands and onto many "debut of the year" lists.  Cameron shows a lot of promise and though The Red Knight fell a little short for me, there's certainly hints that this is a series to keep an eye on.

Grade: B-

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