Book cover: Traitors Blade - Sebastien de Castell (a swordsman in a swooshy blood-red cloak)The Greatcoats once enforced the King’s Law. Now they are outcast wanderers, despised by the commoners they no longer defend and feared by the Dukes whose will they used to thwart. But the First Magister has not abandoned his dead King’s dream. If he can find the King’s best-kept secret, the Greatcoats may yet defeat the Dukes’ dream of absolute rule.

The plot fits right into the fantasy tradition, but the opening sequence makes it clear that Traitor’s Blade has embraced another great tradition with gusto: swashbuckling. It’s almost impossible to read this book without seeing The Three Musketeers as our peerless warriors fight for Right and Justice against the ruthless, amoral nobility; and that’s before you get to the rapiers and – instead of swishy cloaks – Greatcoats.

Of course there’s three of them, with different temperaments and skill sets, bound together by friendship and loyalty. Those looking for over the top entertainment will be well served: the opening sequence (in which they have a flicker of hope extinguished and are set up for murder) includes leaping out of windows, impossible stunts and a great deal of snark.

While I never really warmed to Falco McAngstFace with his motivational dead wife (ugh) and terrible burden of king-related guilt, I quickly developed a soft spot for Kest, his humourless sword saint best friend. The plot races along at a rate of knots, punctuated by outrageous set pieces and unravelling trauma: try to find the mysterious Charoites, rescue a girl from a murder festival, and thwart the Dukes and Duchesses.

It’s all a lot of fun, but I had issues with it that bothered me more the further I read. Firstly, I get irritated when characters fail to spot the blindingly obvious. Yes, I’ve been that person too, so embedded in context that you can’t see what’s in front of you, but saga-loving Falco is at least as well equipped to figure this one out as I am – even with Tailor’s heavy-handed interventions to stop his penny from dropping. I can only parse this as farce or pantomime: I certainly hope we aren’t meant to consider the truth of the King’s Charoites a twist.

Tailor herself is a foul-mouthed sort of fabulous (I love a grumpy old woman), but at times frustratingly dea ex machina. She’s like a faery crone, popping out of the bushes to make vague pronouncements and hopefully get you out of trouble, her antics increasingly unlikely unless I accept her as the world’s equivalent to Fin Raziel (that time she was turned into a muskrat was unfortunate, but she really is a powerful sorceress – and maybe if I’d drawn the Willow parallel at the time I’d have loved Tailor better).

Then there’s the absurd villainy of the monologuing antagonists (a pet peeve; I like a nuanced villain, not a wicked stereotype). These are all-out EEEEEVIL: torture, murder, Machiavellian plots, and tax-rape-slaughtering their nobility and commonfolk alike. It’s not quite The Weavers of Saramyr, but it’s not far off. It seems unlikely this would be a stable society (especially given the hints there’s an ambitious foreign power looming over the border). I can’t take the Duke or Patriana seriously; I have to imagine them stroking a white cat.

That said, in the name of solid entertainment in between, I could largely overlook the paper-thin characters and engineered coincidences. It’s the equivalent of literary scenery chewing, and I’ve always enjoyed an actor who really knows where to supplement his or her carb intake.

The real problem was by the time I was two-thirds through, I felt like I’d given the narrative one too many passes for elements that at best raise my eyebrow and at worst tempt me to reject the book out of hand: the ‘fight like a girl’ joke (which might have been fine if we’d met a female Greatcoat, although Brasti adds insult to injury by saying female Greatcoats don’t fight like girls); almost every female character is a damsel in distress or a femme fatale; the slut-shaming of Lady Tiarren (by a villain, but nonetheless) closely followed by our hero sneering at the sex-working priestesshood. Even as I recognised how much I was objecting to, the priestess effectively pitched sex as the heal-all for Falco’s deep-seated psychological problems and then refused to take no for an answer. Erm. No. No, that’s not cool.

So while Traitor’s Blade is fun on several levels, I think it repeatedly hits awkward notes. There’s some suggestion that de Castell knows it – Falco calls Brasti out on his jokes; the girl urchin calls out the ruffian leader for his attitudes. And Aline is fabulous: unabashedly terrified yet determined to survive and uphold her name. Falco may be her protector and a grown-up, but she calls him out on his poor judgement and demands the right to make her own decisions.

In the end, the book had just enough going for it to waltz me past my objections – just – but the objections have lingered where the sense of fun hasn’t; it bothered me more than I realised whilst distracted by the swashbuckling. I trust Sebastien de Castell to improve on this (because I thoroughly enjoyed Spellslinger), but if Traitor’s Blade was the only book of his I’d read, I’m not sure I’d read another. As it is, I will see if it’s in the library – because I think its heart is in the right place, and I know de Castell can do better. Enough people whose opinions I respect adore this series, so I’ll give it a bit more rope.

***1/2