Despite some minor misgivings, I absolutely loved Miles Cameron’s debut fantasy novel The Red Knight, the gritty and stirring story of a mercenary company, led by the titular Red Knight, who gets drawn into an epic battle that turns out to have much wider implications than he initially bargained for. The Red Knight is a wide-ranging tale full of complex characters and some of the best medieval combat scenes I’ve ever read. As the story progresses, and especially in its final section, it becomes clear that there’s much more going on here than initially meets the eye, with the epic battle for Lissen Carak just an opening skirmish (or, maybe, just the latest flare-up) of a much wider-ranging conflict.
And now, just about a year later, Miles Cameron delivers Book Two of the Traitor Son Cycle, entitled The Fell Sword.
The new novel picks up more or less where the previous one left off. If you’re a bit fuzzy on the first book’s details, I recommend rereading the final chapter (Chapter 18), as this will refresh most of the important points and put you exactly where you need to be to enjoy The Fell Sword.
Before looking at the actual text of the novel, I want to highlight a few other aspects of this book that made me happy. First of all, the US edition of The Fell Sword is once again a gorgeous book in the physical sense: a lovely, sturdy trade paperback, thick quality paper, French flaps and once again (yes!) deckle edges. This is the kind of book that gets people who geek out about book design very excited. (Regardless, it appears that author Miles Cameron still enjoys poking holes in his books, as this video will show. You may remember the author subjected his first novel to a similar test, that time with bow and arrow.)
Next up, the cover illustration (by Epica Prima) and design (by Lauren Panepinto) are once again simple but striking, and fit in perfectly with the first volume in the series. I have to say it’s kind of odd that The Red Knight prominently features a sword on the cover and The Fell Sword shows a knight, but whatever—it works.
Then, you open the book, and lo and behold, there are maps. Multiple maps! These were (at least in the US edition, can’t speak for any others) sorely lacking from the first book. The maps help place the various regions and countries of Cameron’s fictional world in relation to each other, which is extremely timely given that The Fell Sword broadens the scope of the story tremendously. The opening sentence of The Fell Sword is a telling indication of what’s to come:
As the Red Knight left the abode of the Wyrm of the Green Hills and rode south to the Inn of Dorling, Morgan Mortirmir, late of Harndon, sat in class in the Imperial capital of Liviapolis.
Right from the start Miles Cameron makes it clear that this new novel is a direct continuation of The Red Knight, starting off with a reference to the stunning final chapter of that novel (which, again, I encourage you to reread) and then pulling the camera right across the world to a new location and a brand new point of view character.
Morgan Mortimir is a gawky teenager studying at the University in the Imperial capital of Liviapolis. He is intellectually brilliant but unable to summon actual magic (or, in the parlance of the novel, turn potentia into ops), so he is considered—and considers himself—a failure. Speaking High Archaic, considered his greatest accomplishment in his barbarian homeland of Alba, is something even the most common criminal can do in Liviapolis. His nickname among the other students is the Plague.
It is, perhaps, understandable that Mortirmir is prone to drowning his sorrows. His latest drinking binge introduces him to one of the Emperor’s elite Nordikan guards, a development that eventually will place him at the center of the largest political upheaval to hit the Empire in centuries, when the Emperor is taken hostage during a palace coup.
And where there’s political upheaval, the services of resourceful mercenary captains such as the Red Knight are often in high demand…
It’s hard to summarize the wide-ranging and multi-threaded plot of The Fell Sword in just a few paragraphs. Like the first novel in the series, it covers events and developments on multiple levels and in several locations. Miles Cameron moves the camera frequently, from the palace in Liviapolis to the Alban courts, from events in Galle to the travelling Jacks, from creatures of the Wild to indigenous tribes like the Sossenag.
One of the main ideas that gradually built up throughout The Red Knight and became front and center towards the end of that novel is the contrast between the temporary, almost petty-seeming struggles between the world’s leaders and the much more ancient conflict playing out on an entirely different level. In The Fell Sword, Miles Cameron explores this idea in more detail, showing that this series is being set up to be much, much more than just the story of a mercenary captain.
Given all of this, it’s admirable that Cameron still manages to get his readers to care for his characters. This series has, to put it mildly, a rather large cast, many of whom are returning from The Red Knight and more than a few new ones too. Even with the near-overwhelming number of major and minor characters populating these novels, the author manages to imbue them with distinct personalities and motivations. More simply put: I love this series’ characters. (Still, now we have maps in this second novel, maybe a Dramatis Personae for the next one wouldn’t be a bad idea?)
First and foremost there is, of course, the Red Knight himself, who usually goes by “Captain” but towards the end of this novel even starts using his real name in public (which I won’t spoil for you here, if you haven’t read the first book yet.) The Captain is a competent leader, a fearsome warrior, and maybe most importantly, an incredibly arrogant bastard. When he finds delight in the sheer glorious effrontery he displays, it makes for infectious, often very funny reading. One of the aspects of these books I haven’t seen praised enough is their humor: Cameron has a masterful sense of comedic timing and occasionally creates laugh-out-loud moments in the most tense situations.
To give a full list of characters here would take up too much space. Some of my favorites include a few of the Captain’s officers: Bad Tom and Sauce are at their best, and how can you not love a character whose nickname is “Wilful Murder”? On the other side of the spectrum, Cameron once again plays havoc with the “women were powerless in Medieval society” trope by showing several powerful female characters who use a variety of ways to exert power and control the narrative. I won’t deny that Cameron’s descriptions often painfully fall in the “male gaze” trap, and lines such as “when she was tempted, she succumbed” don’t help, nor do a few scenes showing sexual violence.
However, I believe it’s equally important to point out that the overall tendency in these novels is one of strong female characters and of female empowerment. Several male rulers are being steered by their wives and, at one point, referred to as “boys who just want to hit things.” There’s Sister Amicia, and Mag the Seamstress, and the widows at the Manor of Middlehill who come in and pick up the pieces. There is much more complexity here than you might expect, with various female characters showing resiliency and using different kinds of strength throughout the narrative.
If you loved The Red Knight, The Fell Sword delivers everything you’d hope for and more, including a large helping of Cameron’s unusually visceral battle scenes, which evoke the glory and gore and rush of combat with a masterful sense of timing, switching from wide-view perspectives to brief highlights of individual moments. Miles Cameron uses his background as a Medieval re-enactor as well as his extensive experience as an author (he recently revealed, not that it was a very well kept secret, that he is prolific historical fiction author Christian Cameron) to make these some of the best battle scenes you’ll find in all of fantasy.
The Fell Sword is another huge novel that somehow feels shorter than it really is. There’s a great flow to the novel, making it the kind of book that will keep you up late reading. I believe the kids nowadays refer to this as “unputdownability,” but whatever the proper lit-crit term is, The Fell Sword has it in spades. Highly recommended.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on March 11, 2014.
A few other posts that may be of interest:
– my review of The Red Knight (the first book in this series)
– last week’s guest post by Miles Cameron.