Sebastien de Castell (decastell.com)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
The Greatcoats are the stuff of legend. Traveling Magisters, their job is to travel the country bringing the King’s justice to his subjects and ensuring his laws are upheld. Falcio val Mond, once the First Cantor of this elite group of men and women, now hires himself out as security for caravaners in the vain hope that he will be able to persuade them to reinstate the Greatcoats as the guardians of the roads. The king is dead, the Greatcoats now branded Trattori and tatter-cloaks, disbanded and gone their separate ways. When Falcio and his friends get wind of a plot to put a representative of the Dukes on the throne, it becomes clear that they must do something quickly, or watch as their land slowly destroys itself from the inside out.
Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade introduces us to a fascinating new fantasy world, and a cast of unforgettable characters. This is a very political world that, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous place for the three men at the story’s heart, and the one hundred and forty one others like them. These are the Greatcoats, a group of men and women sworn to uphold the King’s laws across the country. This is not an easy task: the country is split into a series of Duchies, and each is subject to the laws set by its own Duke. It is this divide that has caused the war between King and Dukes, leading to the ultimate demise of the king, and the current status of Falcio val Mond and his brothers and sisters. This country-wide scenario plays out in microcosm during Blood Week in the city of Rijou; here, driven by the need to uphold the laws in which he believes, Falcio stays behind to ensure the safety of the only surviving member of the Tiarren family, a young girl who, it seems, may be destined for greater things in times to come.
The story revolves around Falcio val Mond and his two companions, Kest – the world’s greatest sword-fighter – and Brasti – the world’s greatest archer. Behind them lies the weight of the legend of the Greatcoats, a group that would only be necessary in this fractured land where each Duke rules supreme over his own area, the King less of a figurehead and more of a nuisance to be dealt with. The coats themselves – armour, shelter, storage – set their wearers apart from knights and other assorted soldiers, bringing respect when times are good, and instant recognition as traitors when times are bad. They also allow de Castell to add little touches to the narrative that set these men apart from anyone else we’ve ever come across in the realms of fantasy fiction – the Game of Cuffs, or the ever-burning question of whether, if a man were quick enough, the coats might be able to stop a lead ball. These men, as individuals, all have their own traits: Falcio’s quick wit and quick rapiers; Brasti’s joking nature and his ability to hit the seemingly impossible target with his bow; Kest’s quiet, serious demeanour coupled with an unrivalled skill with the sword. They fit perfectly together, three personalities so complementary that it’s impossible to imagine Traitor’s Blade without one or other of them.
Around this solid core, de Castell has built a cast of characters that imprint themselves indelibly on the reader’s mind: the cruel Dukes; the young King who is wise beyond his years; princesses, assassins, minstrels and the old Tailor, who has a habit of popping up when we least expect it. de Castell sets the precedent early on: very few of these people are what they appear to be; and, still, we can’t help but be surprised at the level of duplicity we’re likely to encounter as we fly through the novel. Here is a world where magic exists, but in small quantities; a world where political strife impacts on the common man, not just the privileged few who are part of the scheming; a world, and a cast of characters, built on a solid foundation with a supporting history that is as engaging and engrossing as the main story arc itself.
As you might expect from a novel whose central characters are men of the sword, Traitor’s Blade is a constant blur of movement and action, one fight sequence following so closely on the heels of the one previous that it’s difficult to work out where de Castell has managed to fit so much story. But there is plenty of food for thought here, amongst all the action, as de Castell embarks on epic world-building designed to support the rest of the Greatcoats saga. There is a lot of wit and a lot of heart in this novel (which, when compared to its contemporaries, is relatively short at less than four hundred pages) and both serve the story well, setting a tone and a mood that can quite often be missing in these quest-type fantasy epics.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘We teach them the first rule of the sword.’
One of the guards, the one closest to Kest, tightened his grip on his pike in preparation for the attack and said jeeringly, ‘And what’s that supposed to be tatter-cloak? Lay down and die like the traitors you are?’
‘No,’ Kest said. ‘The first rule of the sword is–‘
His words were cut off as the guard jabbed his pike with the speed of a metal ball flying from the end of a pistol.
‘– put the pointy end into the other man,’ Kest finished.
I’ve been on a lucky run with fantasy novels of late. Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, the first book in the longer Greatcoats saga, is not the book to break that run. Full of wit, intrigue, action and violence, it’s a wonderful introduction to a new fantasy world and the people that inhabit it. And, from what we see on our first visit, there are plenty of reasons to come back for more.
|THE BOY WITH THE PORCELAIN BLADE
Den Patrick (www.denpatrick.com)
On the weather-beaten island of Landfall stands the sprawling Demesne – four great Houses built around a central Keep which houses the reclusive, and reputedly mad, King. Lucien ‘Sinistra’ di Fontein is Orfano, a disfigured foundling taken in by the nobility of Demesne and trained as a swordsman. When he turns eighteen he, like all the Orfano who have come before, and all those who will come after, will face his final test and gain acceptance into one of the major Houses. But there are forces arrayed against Lucien, and against his Orfano brothers and sisters. The political climate in Demesne is shifting and Lucien must shift with it. His very existence depends on his skill with the sword, and his cunning.
Den Patrick’s first novel introduces us to the closed community on the island of Landfall. Centred around the castle-like structure of Demesne, Patrick introduces us to a world that bears remarkable parallels to our own. Using the Italian Renaissance as his model, Landfall is an insular world built around a mad and reclusive King who has created four great Houses – the military Fontein; the agricultural Contadino; the educational Erudito; and the craftsmen of House Prospero – around him to ensure the continued existence of his people. Into this fragile political ecology Patrick introduces the Orfano, rare beasts who normally appear three or four years apart, disfigured foundlings who have the protection of the King and his sinister Majordomo, and who play an important part in the inter-House dynamics.
Lucien, the book’s central character is one such Orfano, a young man about to move into adulthood and the responsibilities that invariably involves. In the background, plans are put in motion, plans to cross the King and his beloved freaks and wrest control of Demesne from the hands of the mad hermit who hasn’t left the central Keep in almost two hundred years. As Lucien finds himself drawn inextricably into this plot, he discovers that it is but a single layer of a more complex web of deceit. As we follow his journey through the political minefield, we are given insight into this young man, and the people who surround him, in a series of flashbacks to various points in his childhood. The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is as intricately-plotted as any novel of intrigue – not a word is out of place, and every scene that plays out in front of our eyes, regardless of how relevant it seems at the time, is key to the ultimate reveal – while still maintaining a pace and sense of action that we’ve come to expect from this type of fantasy fiction.
Patrick surrounds Lucien with an unforgettable cast of characters: the other Orfano, each with their own unique disfigurations and crosses to bear; Superiore of the Maestro di Spada Giancarlo, who has a severe dislike of Lucien; the wise Virmyre, one of the most important influences in Lucien’s education; Camelia, the cook who plays the part of Lucien’s mother as he grows; and, most striking, the sinister, hooded Majordomo, the voice of the King and that madman’s sole representative within Demesne. Demesne and Landfall themselves are locations that stick in the mind of the reader: we get a potted part-history, part-myth about the origins of the island nation (cleverly and naturally told), but Patrick never spends time examining ancient history. There are hints – the Italian language; the histories that the characters read – that Landfall might be related, in some strange way, to our own world, but the novel still maintains the sense of a secondary-world setting, where our own rules don’t necessarily hold true and where, as a result, anything is possible.
There are some deft touches that set The Boy With the Porcelain Blade above the competition: here is political intrigue to put even George R. R. Martin to shame; here a sense of horror that makes this excellent debut a novel that blurs the genre lines quite significantly; here references to technology that show us that this is a world of science rather than magic. The most intriguing aspect is the one that gives the novel its title: the ceramic blades with which the Orfano are issued before they have proven their worth. It’s a strange choice of material for a fighting blade, but Patrick makes us believe it nonetheless.
With elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers – from fans of The Three Musketeers, to those who love to immerse themselves in the Song of Ice and Fire series – The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is a dark, gritty, horrific piece of fantasy fiction that grabs the reader on the first page and keeps them engaged to the end. The sense that this might not be a secondary world makes some of the horror more immediate than it might otherwise have been, and the character of the Majordomo, with his grating, monotonous voice, is one that will haunt your dreams for some time to come. A stunning introduction to a fascinating world, peopled with characters in whom the reader will be entirely invested, Den Patrick leaves us with only two questions: how long must be wait before we can return to Landfall? And, with a debut this strong, how can the second book in the series possibly stand up to our expectations?
|NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN
Translated by Nick Caistor
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Argentina, December 2001. Against the background of a country in economic free-fall, we meet Pablo Martelli, a sixty-something bathroom appliance salesman with a history in the National Shame, an elite branch of the police force which lived up to their nickname during the dictatorship of the late ‘70s. After receiving a post-midnight phone call from an old friend, Martelli undertakes the long drive from Buenos Aires to the small coastal town of Bahia Blanca, only to find his friend’s corpse lying on the floor of his chalet. When the man’s daughter is kidnapped, Martelli is forced to investigate, and finds himself involved in a conspiracy that could bring down an already unstable government.
At its heart, No-one Loves a Policeman – the first of Orsi’s novels to be translated into English – is an old-fashioned hardboiled detective novel. Imagine Chandler’s Marlowe or MacDonald’s Archer brought up to date, aged a few years and relocated from the stifling heat of Los Angeles to the equally stifling heat of Argentina in the height of summer. Martelli, our first-person narrator, is a wise-cracking, gruff-natured man who it’s impossible not to like from the outset. He may be approaching old age, but he has a surprisingly modern view of the world and his insights, while amusing, are often spot-on. But at the same time, he has this history, this secret history, with the National Shame, for whom he killed his fair share of people, and from which he was ejected when he failed to toe the party line. We never discover exactly what the big secret is, and the reason for his discharge is decidedly ambiguous – was it because he went too far, or because he suddenly developed a conscience? This makes Martelli the epitome of the untrustworthy narrator, and I spent my time with the man wondering when he might stab me in the back.
The language is beautiful and evocative. The reader finds himself immersed in that troubled country, sweating along with the characters as the heat and the pressure build – mounting debts and no money to pay them because the banks don’t have the cash to cover everyone’s savings; a government in chaos, ministers resigning on a daily or weekly basis like rats abandoning the proverbial sinking ship. This background, and the style of writing, is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant novella, No-one Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba), which deals with very similar economic issues in Colombia forty years previous. Switching between narrative (“he said”, “she did”) and a love letter to a woman who abandoned Martelli when she discovered that he was a policeman (“you said”, “you did”), No-one Loves a Policeman is an exciting and captivating read.
The unsung hero here must be Nick Caistor (this is the second of his translations I’ve read in the past couple of months): no matter how good the source writing, a poor translation will ruin a perfect novel. That is far from the case here, and Caistor should be commended for a job very well done. Of course, credit is also due Orsi for constructing a complex story that is at once hardboiled mystery, political thriller and tale of unrequited love. He has given us a cast of characters who are vibrant and realistic, and a plot that – like the best of Chandler – requires a keen eye and a considerable amount of concentration.
In all, despite the questionable cover – there’s just something not right about that faux-Vettriano look – No-one Loves a Policeman is an excellent piece of crime fiction that should appeal to fans of the genre. I, for one, am already looking forward to Holy City which, according to the author bio, is forthcoming from MacLehose Press.