PROS: Fascinating “Greatcoats” concept; very well choreographed sword fight scenes.
CONS: Very muddy middle; little to no pay off on the potential in the first half of the story; characters chase a MacGuffin around for no reason; the ending is full of several deus ex machina plot points; vague world building and even vaguer characters.
BOTTOM LINE: While Traitor’s Blade is bursting with potential, it never becomes more than a mediocre fantasy outing. The ending is a huge let down.
The second I read the blurb for Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, I knew I had to read it. There is nothing I love more than a fantasy novel with some swashbuckling rogues looking for adventure and redemption. Traitor’s Blade sounded like a rousing fantasy version of The Three Musketeers and you can’t imagine my disappointment when the book failed to deliver. This book had so much potential but as it dragged on it got harder and harder to forgive it.
Traitor’s Blade tells the tale of Falcio, Kest and Brasti. They were once Greatcoats, a force over one hundred strong, who acted as magistrates to a great and kind king. Unfortunately, that king is long dead and now the three friends spend their days as unpaid bodyguards for merchants and nobles. The Greatcoats are a fascinating group. They roamed the country side settling disputes and carrying out justice. They sang their verdicts so that they would be remembered by illiterate townspeople and peasants. Each member wore a leather coat with built-in secret pockets and special armor-like panels made of bone. They were completely badass.
Sadly, Falcio, Kest and Brasti never live up to the mythic qualities of the Greatcoats. The Greatcoats myth is the extent of the world building in Traitor’s Blade. Everything else is murky and unexplained. There’s a rich world and fascinating religions just trying to break through but we’re never told much about them. The political system is also equally murky which is a shame because so much of the story revolves around corrupt dukes and lords. World building is so non-existent that we don’t even get concrete descriptions of what most of the characters actually look like. Everyone is poorly defined by large brush strokes. Falcio is the depressed leader, Kest is the humorless swordsman, and Brasti is the sarcastic archer. None of them ever felt more than just basic templates.
Falcio is the main character and despite having a rough life, he garners little sympathy. He’s meant to be this amazing and heroic character but he falls completely flat and I never began to like him. He’s obsessed with finding something called the King’s Charoites which are never fully explained to us. His king told him to go find them before he was killed and a decade later Falcio is no closer in his quest. We’re never told why they are important just that Falcio must find them at all costs. Falcio is so desperate to find this item that he tries to defend a family in a town going through a nonsensical Purge-like event because they might, maybe possibly kinda sorta, randomly have information about this item. It’s infuriating because it makes so little sense. Why that family? Why not any other family in that city? He zeros in on that one for no reason other than one of them knew the dead King and they are literally the first family they see in the city. From there, the plot unwinds. Falcio takes up trying to rescue a young girl because her murdered family maybe knew about the King’s Charoites and she shares the name of his murdered wife. Everyone leaves him there to fend for himself.
The plot is muddled and things happen only because they have to for the story to advance. The characters are reacting to the plot as it happens, not causing things to happens. Despite being touted as a Three Muskateers-style story, Falcio is alone for almost the entire middle part of the tale. The meat of the story involves him trying to keep the girl safe (something he fails repeatedly to do) as his two brothers in arms do who knows what off-screen. We’re never really told what they’re up to. The story gets very grim as Falcio maneuvers around the city and stumbles upon new villains who want him dead. He encounters the old woman who made his greatcoat, a severely tortured magical horse (that scene was so difficult to read) and a duchess who has a vague motive to torture and kill him but never really explains why. She was so over the top evil that it was almost comical.
The plot point that broke me concerned a magical whore named Ethalia. Literally, she is a magical whore. She’s part of a vague religious sect who do their gods will through sex work somehow. Falcio encounters her after escaping vicious torture. Ethalia takes the girl and Falcio home with her and then proceeds to force herself on Falcio. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to read. Falcio tells her to stop many times but instead she ties him down and has sex with him. I don’t care how you frame this, she rapes him. He doesn’t consent to what she does at all. Falcio refused Ethalia, he told her “stop” and “please don’t” over and over yet she continued because having sex with him would heal him somehow. I had to put down the book and walk away for a while after this scene. The next morning, Ethalia demands Falcio abandon his quest and run away with her to an island somewhere because they’re meant to be together. She’s only in the story for a dozen pages, has only known him for a night, and yet knows he is her true love. Falcio refuses and leaves. We never hear about the magical whore again. This is not the first time rape is used as a plot point either.
Consent is a strange problem in this book and the women characters suffer for it. The back story about Falcio’s wife is also strange. He stands by as a duke rapes her (which she blithly goes along with somehow?) and then he decides to take her with them. Falcio kind of waits around for a while, then decides that he should maybe go and find her. He discovers her dead in an inn and then spirals into a fugue state. He goes and kills everyone in his path on his way to kill the King who allowed this to happen. Falcio actually manages to make it to the castle and finds the King’s son. Despite the fact that Falcio is covered in blood and dirt and filth, the king’s son manages to stop him from murdering him and decides “hey, this crazy murderer guy is the perfect person to start the Greatcoats!”. Seriously.
The end of the story is just one big let down. It’s chock-full of deus ex machina and none of the three characters truly have much to do with the way events turn out. Things happen for them because they have to happen that way. There’s double crossings and triple crossings that are supposed to seem shocking but just come off as confusing since nothing in the book has set them up. There are some character reveals that are supposed to be exciting but are just boring because we haven’t been given a reason to care about any of these people. At the end, Falcio discovers exactly what the King’s Charoites are, which is just another nonsensical item to add to the pile.
This story had so much potential. At the beginning, Falcio, Kest and Brasti seem snarky and fun in a kind of Lies of Locke Lamora way. The Greatcoats are a very cool concept and it’s a pity not much is done with it. Having Kest and Brasti missing from half of the novel is also rough and makes the middle part of the book feel like a slog. The end is full of hand-waving and quickly cobbled together miracles. A huge battle, the climax of the novel, is set up over a few chapters and yet is over in just two sentences. It’s crushing in how disappointing it is.
There are some bright spots in the story. de Castell infuses the book with excellent swordplay and well choreographed fight scenes. They never feel repetitive or confusing. It’s unfortunate they aren’t used to more effect. For example, Falcio is described as an average swordsman yet is able to defeat warriors that no one else can even lay a hand on. That fight scene was well done yet felt so forced since Falcio wasn’t supposed to be that good. Kest, who is touted as the best swordsman in the world, has a chance to face off against the god of swordsmen but that fight isn’t even described and it’s assumed he won with a trick Falcio whispers to him.
This is a hard one for me. I went into Traitor’s Blade with such high hopes. I was ready for a swashbuckling good time with some clever rogues and some dastardly villains. Instead, the book is bogged down in grimdark violence, uneven plotting and unconvincing characters. The villains never felt dangerous because their motives are either never revealed or are just plain confounding. It’s hard to figure out why we should care about who ascends the throne when we aren’t even told how the politics work. The stakes either feel much too high for no reason or much too low. The potential Traitor’s Blade had was staggering and it’s hard to see it come to such a weak end.
I feel that Traitor’s Blade may be divisive with readers. If you like grimdark fantasy then you may find enough here to entertain you if you aren’t bothered by the weak plotting. If you’re looking for a romp akin to Scott Lynch or Alexandre Dumas, you will find little here to interest you. Ultimately, there’s enough problematic elements with this book that I can’t truly recommend it.