The eponymous hero of The Red Knight by Miles Cameron is the leader of a mercenary army that’s just returning to Alba after fighting a campaign abroad. His identity and even his real name are a mystery to most: there are hints throughout the novel, and eventually you’ll have a good idea of who he is, but for the most part he simply goes by “Red Knight” or “Captain” and deflects any questions about his origins.
He and his company are now on their way to Lissen Carak, the site of an ancient and heavily fortified convent whose surrounding farms have recently been subjected to attacks by a creature from the Wild. The Abbess, unable to secure protection from the distant King’s court, hires the Red Knight’s company to root out the source of the attacks. Little do either the Abbess or the Red Knight know that this engagement will turn out to be much longer, bloodier, and more important than they originally bargained for—not only to the convent but to the entire realm…
The Red Knight is a wonderful fantasy novel with a few distinctive flaws. Opinions on this will probably vary wildly, but as far as I’m concerned, those flaws are nowhere near significant enough to call the end product anything but a raging success. Dear reader, I couldn’t put this book down. I lost sleep. I walked around carrying it from room to room, bumping into furniture because I was so captivated by its story. If the second book in this series were available, I would have picked it up immediately and would be reading it right now at the same furious pace as the first one. If not for those few problems, The Red Knight would get a perfect five star rating from me, but as it is, I still think it’s excellent and more than worth your time.
One of those glitches is the fact that it takes a good while for this novel to get going. It’s like a heavy cart that takes a lot of effort to get moving. It’s practically unstoppable once it gains momentum, but it’s sluggish at first because it takes a while to overcome that initial inertia. On the plus side, those early scenes do establish lots of atmosphere and, looking back, contain a wealth of information that will turn out to be meaningful. It just all feels a bit directionless, early on.
That initial lack of direction is also partly caused by the novel’s structure. The Red Knight consists of just eighteen numbered chapters, but each one of those is divided into a relatively large number of fragments ranging from a few pages to, at times, just one or two paragraphs. Each fragment is introduced by a location and name: “Albinkirk – Ser John Crayford”, then “Lissen Carak – The Red Knight”, and so on. The point of view changes so often that it occasionally becomes distracting, because it makes the narrative skip around too much. When Cameron uses this technique effectively, e.g. when showing one of the stunning action sequences from different near-simultaneous perspectives, it actually works well, but in general, like an old hard drive, The Red Knight would probably run more smoothly if someone had defragmented it.
Still, in this case, even the slow start and the scattershot narration weren’t enough to distract me. Once Miles Cameron gets that slow, fragmented cart rolling, you’re sucked into a gritty and violent fantasy tale that largely centers on Lissen Carak but also brings in events and characters from far and wide. All of these eventually connect to the central narrative, making this one of those novels that gradually broadens its scope and raises the stakes until it becomes clear that the defense of that one fortress is only the latest flashpoint of an epic and ongoing conflict.
One of the strongest aspects of The Red Knight are its amazing battle scenes. Miles Cameron is apparently a military veteran, a historian with a degree in Medieval History, and a devoted medieval reenactor. All of this (and some impressive writing skills) results in some of the best medieval combat sequences I’ve ever read. No exaggeration here: Cameron conveys the experience of the battlefield in an unforgettable way, from tactics and strategy to mounted charges, one-on-one combat and simple, unmitigated butchery. If you’re interested in medieval combat, you absolutely must read The Red Knight. A large chunk of the novel focuses on a siege, and aside from Stormed Fortress by Janny Wurts I’ve never really seen a medieval siege described in such a thrilling and effective way.
The Red Knight is full to the brim of fascinating, well-rounded characters. The titular main character is a competent, confident enigma with more than a bit of Kvothe in his personality. He’s a smug, arrogant bastard (in more ways than one) who, due to his relative youth, constantly has to defend his decisions and authority, both from outsiders and from people in his own company. Fortunately he’s right more often than wrong. Less fortunately, he carries around a good amount of anger and trauma. He’s an interesting, complex character I definitely look forward to reading more about.
The supporting cast is large and varied. As mentioned, the point of view skips around frequently, as if Cameron wants to make sure he shows the fantasy world in general, and the conflict in particular, from as many sides as possible. Royalty, nobles, knights, clergy, merchants, laborers, rebels, creatures of the Wild—all of them have one or more viewpoint characters featured in the novel. We get to know two of the Red Knight’s lieutenants (“Bad Tom” and “Sauce”), people who would fit right in with the Black Company or the Bridgeburners. We meet both the King and Queen of Alba, and Cameron depicts them as complex, multi-faceted, real people who also happen to be rulers. Other favorite supporting characters were Lissen Carak’s Abbess (if Cameron ever writes a novel from her perspective, I’ll be first in line) and Jean de Vrailly, a foreign knight who is so devout and dedicated that he is, to modern eyes, quite psychotic. The Red Knight contains enough great side-characters by itself to fill an entire series.
One of the most interesting things about The Red Knight is that it combines the gritty realism and violence of, say, Joe Abercrombie or George R. R. Martin with the authentic, historical atmosphere of something like the Crucible trilogy by Sara Douglass. For the latter, and aside from his obvious familiarity with the vocabulary of medieval combat, Cameron does an excellent job depicting the central importance of religion in medieval life. It’s something people experience intensely and personally. It’s never far removed from worldly power. There’s focus on knightly values and on the ideals of courtly love, but it’s the simple, direct religiosity that permeates every aspect of life that lends the novel its atmosphere. (The historical feel of this novel is probably no coincidence, as it’s widely suspected—but not confirmed—that Miles Cameron is a pseudonym for historical fiction author Christian Cameron.)
On the other hand, The Red Knight is full of depictions of the brutality of life for the common folk, the horrors of war, the way the small, unimportant people can be ground to bits when the powers-that-be turn the wheel. This grim cynicism is of course nothing new nowadays (it’s almost the new standard, actually), but it somehow has a stronger impact within the context of Cameron’s pseudo-historical setting. Knights often act more like apex predators than protectors of the weak: even the Red Knight thinks “killing fleeing infantrymen was an essential part of knightly training, taken for granted, like courage.”
The final piece of The Red Knight’s puzzle is a fascinating portrayal of magic that gradually gains in complexity as the novel progresses. The first chapter shows the Red Captain reaching “into the palace in his head,” addressing what appears to be a living statue, and lining up three arcane symbols, all of which causes an effect in the real world. We never get a Sanderson-like outline of how all of this works or what each symbol means, but it does become clear from conversations with the old court magus Harmodius (another favorite side-character) that there is, for want of a better word, a magic system at work here—and even that doesn’t explain the full complexity of magical power in this fantasy world.
In the end, The Red Knight is an amazing novel. Yes, it could have had a stronger start, and yes, it’s much too fragmented at times, but once it really gets going it’s incredibly hard to put down. The action scenes are superb. The characters have depth. The plot and setting work together to gradually expand the scope of the story, until you’re fully invested in the novel and eager to read more. This is a stirring, gritty, and at times brutal epic fantasy treat. If Miles Cameron keeps this up, the Traitor Son Cycle could be on its way to becoming something truly special.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on Jan. 18th, 2013.
AND… if this sounded good to you, check out my long and fascinating interview with author Miles Cameron!