To my great shame, I have never read The Three Musketeers. I have seen and loved multiple movie versions, despite the poor quality of said adaptations (except for “The Man in the Iron Mask,” which is dope). The myth of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and little baby brother d’Artagnan is one I hold close. I will read Dumas at some point, both for the literary acumen and for the erasure of my shame, but in the interim Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade is not a bad substitute. Plus it has magic!
Traitor’s Blade is not a direct fantasy-translation of The Three Musketeers, but it is as close as we are likely to get. Falcio, Brasti, and Kest are Greatcoats – travelling magistrates directed by King Paelis to administer justice to even the lowliest peasant in a land where noble houses claim near universal dominion. The King and his laws are the only thing that keep this hierarchy in check. But the King is dead, murdered by those very nobles, and the Greatcoats are disbanded with unclear missions set them by the King on what to do in case of emergency. Falcio is looking for the Chariotes, gemstones that the King spread about the land and that hold immeasurable value. The King did not tell Falcio where to find these jewels, only that if he looked, he would.
Traitor’s Blade is full of such heady-sounding prophecy, and while it is usually told with a tongue-in-cheek wink, as most of the exposition is, it is still a touch frustrating that Castell tries to cram so many mysteries into his tale. The sheer amount of charm that his characters display can also be heavy on the eyes, and it is only the counter-weight of their hearts that keeps this rampant wit-flourishing from becoming a mess.
As the story emerges, we learn that Falcio is the head of the ex-communicated Greatcoats, and also its founder, or its re-founder. The Greatcoats had existed a hundred years before and been disbanded by a similar group of unlawful nobles. In this way does the history of Castell’s world repeat itself. As we follow The Three Greatcoats along, we learn that their order is one both despised and disrespected, despite their noble intentions and valorous deeds of the past. This is where the tale strikes the reader as particularly Musketeer-like. Disgraced order of justice-warriors roaming the land seek redemption. This is not singular to the Musketeers, but it strikes awfully close to leur maison.
I had a plethora of issues with Traitor’s Blade, despite largely enjoying the novel. Here’s a list:
- It tries to be too witty to the point that it feels desperate.
- The plotting is one continuous surprise reveal after another, every one feeling more contrived than the last with every character Falcio has ever met showing up and proving to be some long-lost wizard or royal.
- A few of those many revelations feel downright ludicrous even beyond the surprise secret identities.
- One or two of the villains are so mustache-twirlingly evil as to defy even suspended disbelief.
- I’m pretty sure a blind man recognizes Falcio from across the room at one point in the book, and I’m still not sure how.
- I have a pretty hard time reading any novel that keeps addressing the ‘you’ that is the reader.
- What should have been the greatest sword duel in any book ever is performed off-page! No description at all, just one character wishing another good luck, walking away, and then the winner showing up later a little bloodied (this really pissed me off).
But the truth is that despite my problems with Castell’s debut novel, many of which would not pass an editor’s scrutiny at certain publishers, this book has something that many in the fantasy genre are lacking in these troubled times. Traitor’s Blade has a heart, and it is that pulsing, emotive organ, pumping away within the flowing pages of this novel, that makes it worth reading. Brasti and Kest, and most assuredly Falcio, are fighting for something. There are shades of grey here, no doubt, but when it comes to the core of the matter, the right meets wrong edge of the paper, there are only two sides of the coin, and these Greatcoats are on the right one. I needed this kind of story in my life. I think maybe we all do. There might be better written books out there with more cohesive plots and less contrived dialogue, but I have not read much this year that had me rooting for its good guys nearly so much. Falcio and his Greatcoats are beaten bloody, but they never give in on what is right and true. These are the stories that inspire those of us reading to be better people, to protect the innocent and weak and uphold what the word noble really means.
I don’t entirely expect the follow up, Knight’s Shadow, to affect me as much (sequels rarely do), but I owe Castell another read for his ability to reach down into my depths and scratch at my emotions. This is why I read books, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that in the need to be overly critical and demand perfection.