The Red Knight review

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Red Knight is the Fantasy debut of Canadian author Miles Cameron and the first book in the Traitor Son cycle, a series that will span five novels.  The novelist  also wrote several historical fiction novels under another pseudonym/real name, Christian Cameron. The second book, The Fell Sword has a tentative release date of Q4 of 2013.
Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild. 
Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern's jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men - or worse, a company of mercenaries - against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder. 
It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it. 
The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he's determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery, it's just another job. The abby is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can't deal with. 
Only it's not just a job. It's going to be a war...
While looking into the Red Knight on the web, I have read on a forum that the synopsis of the book made it look like a "by the number" Fantasy novel.  I agree with the comment but after finishing the book, I would express that if it's the case, the result is much more vibrant, creative and singular than a work based on formulaic Fantasy rendering.

Unfortunately, early on, the Red Knight is kind of a mess, spreading out in numerous directions.  We are thrown in a world with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar locations and presented with a company of mercenaries, the community of an abbey, the woken forces of the wild, the surrounding of the King of Alba and knights from the another country. With several point of views and frequent switches of them in short intervals, it takes a considerable time to feel familiar with Cameron's cast. When everything falls into place, a great tapestry of heroic proportion finds its rhythm and takes you into a gritty ride leaving a score of fallen forces on the battlefield. From there on, I couldn't put it down.

That rhythm of action sequences or masterfully choreographed/rendered fights is like waves; it comes and goes with the critical events of the siege of Lissen Carak, hold by the Red Knight for the Abbess against the wild.  Undeniably, the most interesting perspective and characters are the Red Knight's own, his parentage being shrouded in mystery, and his entourage.  The mercenary captain is young and reacts like a empowered journeyman showing his age as he stumbles with a wide range of feelings, from love to death, hope to resignation. His gang of mercenary brothers is reminiscent of Glen Cook's Black Company or Steven Erikson's Malazan marines.

Cameron is also a reenactor and, as I mentioned in the intro, an historical fiction writer.  When reading the Red Knight, I could feel that the author was in complete control of the medieval setting, technical details and it applies not simply to the siege of Lissen Carak but to all the other storylines involving drovers, merchants, a priory or  the Queen's ladies in waiting. The terminology, equipment, social structure, knighthood depiction transpire medieval rightness.  It's probably the best effort at it that I have ever read.  The only downside with this is the heaviness in the writing, slightly dragging down the composition.

The Red Knight can't be considered as a beacon for the new 'grimdark' category but it's still epic fantasy with grit and gore (and dumb and immoral archers...). Representing life and battles in such a medieval outlook ought to give it this epithet.  In a previous poll, I asked readers which genre fits best with epic fantasy and the most popular answer was military.  If you're in need of a dose, this book will satisfy your appetite.

The thread of the captain of the mercenary company is the main focus of the tale but there's several layer to the story. Every time you think that you understand the whole conflict, something or someone come up with a new twist to keep us in doubt, no one is clearly who he seems to be. The players involved are not really morally grey but you get the point of view of each side, a narrative choice with great benefits in term of empathy for the protagonists.

However, the world created by the author is confounding. Alba, Morea and Galle are full of references to known city names, French dialect, Helen of Troy, Aristotle or Jesus. The author explains his choice of creating a Fantasy world with Christian references with this:

So far, no one has asked me why Christianity seems to operate at par in this world. There are at least two reasons, and I think you might want to know. First, I really, really wanted to write about chivalry, and the ethic of chivalry is so very strongly linked to Christianity as practiced in the European Middle Ages [...] that I really couldn’t untangle them. You may think otherwise. Second, it is worth noting that modern Christians believe that if Christ came to earth, he must have come everywhere—I assume that means everywhere in the M-brane multiverse, and that thought has intrigued me since I caught it from the Jesuit Fathers.

I can understand the choice but I lost my concentration on the plot in some occasions.  When I read about a mix of Native American tribe names, cities like London, references to a French country and more, I feel like I'm in an alternate reality of our world. Even if Cameron's goal was probably right in the end, I would have preferred a lesser association with the Christianity lore of our world.

Nonetheless, Cameron's magic system was thought over and it shows throughout the book. The author doesn't take the reader by the hand but he doesn't leave him in the dark either.  The Red Knight shows his talents sooner than later and it feels confusing at first.  However, slowly, with the new acquaintances he makes, the King's magus or a dashing novice, the whole system is unveiled and our knowledge expanded.  It never feels like info dump, it's well-delivered and surprising.  The system is an incarnation of hermeticism seen through different aspects, depending on the source of power and beliefs.  It's a fitting idea for a medieval era devotee and gives more credit to the Christian inclusion.

There you have it.  The Red Knight is a book created in a familiar niche but it brings to the table compelling characters you'll care about.  The bigger story is interesting enough to make certain you'll want to pick up the follow-up.  It's not without fault but through realistic battle scenes described with mastery of details assorted with an inspired magic system, the life of unexpected individuals is recounted in a way that won't leave you indifferent.

Technically, even if it's not very innovative, the cover feels right for the book. The Orbit Books paperback edition stands at 648 pages and, god, oh god, how I wish that a map was included (hopefully, one will be included in the second book).

The Red Knight
 review score :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


Miles Cameron page


Dave said...

I cant believe I've known about this book for months and didn't realize it was written by Christian Cameron. It just moved up several spots in my to be read pile. Sometimes I think authors are shooting themselves in the foot by using pseudonyms...

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