The Red Knight, The Traitor Son Cycle #1, by Miles Cameron
The Red Knight, by Miles Cameron, had been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for a fair while before I eventually came round to picking it up. It was touted to me as “like Malice (John Gwynne) only better” – making it an interesting proposition given that I consider Malice to be one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in the last few years.
The premise here is sound – a mercenary company is hired to protect an abbey fortress which turns out to be sitting on some great well of power. The forces of the Wild want the fortress and hold it to siege under the leadership of the good king’s renegade sorcerer, who now appears, randomly, to be a tree.
The promise of a gritty, bloody read is easily enough met. There’s plenty of fighting against the bestial horde of the Wild, and the titular Red Knight likes to get stuck in and lead from the front. For me though, there’s altogether too much detail in the build up, or at least too much of the same detail being repeated every time the Red Knight gets ready for battle (which is quite a bit). It seems that when the Red Knight is not fighting, he’s getting dressed to fight (in great detail), walking around with his sabatons ringing off the stone floors, or chasing a pretty young nun around.
My next issue is with said pretty young nun, who is barely introduced to the Red Knight before she’s the object of his eternal desire. Throughout the entire book there’s undercurrents of a great love story involving the Red Knight and Amicia. It’s a tale of forbidden desire, of great love in a time of war, of stolen moments hidden away from everyone else. It may be all of this, but the one thing missing here is chemistry, there’s absolutely none of it to be found anywhere.
Pretty much from the moment she is introduced, Amicia is chased around merrily by the Red Knight, alternating between giving him a flat out “no” and succumbing to his kisses before giving him a flat out “no”. All of this after their first actual interaction involved the Red Knight forcing himself on her, only to hold off at the last moment in what I can only assume was supposed to be a chivalric decision not to commit rape. Where we were nearly given an interesting and strong character, we instead find someone who is exists almost exclusively as a skirt for the Red Knight to chase.
In terms of other characters, there are plenty, but the majority are not fleshed out nearly as much as they deserve to be. The chapters are split up into sub-divisions, giving point of view sections to far too many people (and a bear). Easily half of these sections add nothing to the story, and some clearly spoil the enjoyment, giving away important plot points and twists before their time and ruining the surprise.
George R R Martin is well known for writing his chapters from different character POVs. He’ll devote the entire chapter to the character’s viewpoint and show interactions with other characters, still somehow showing us what those other characters are doing and how they are feeling. Here, Miles Cameron fails utterly, the POV sub-sections are there mainly to show what one character or another sees, occasionally just giving a slightly different visual for the same event as the previous section, rather than giving any insight on the new character.
Some are literally just a few lines long – Character X causes an explosion, Character Y sees the explosion and says “Oh my”, then we go back to Character X to see what he does next. Most authors would deal with this without the need to split the story into these POV sections, but here, the divisions just break up the flow of the story too much. On occasion Cameron does shift the viewpoint without introducing a new POV section, and it seems odd that sometimes the shift is under a new section where other times it is not.
If this wasn’t bad enough, there are some POV sections that you see and think “oh crap, how long is this one?” In most novels, you’re likely to find characters you don’t like, and sometimes yes, they’re POV characters. In The Red Knight, even if you forgive the multitude of unnecessary POV sections, there are two that stand out for me – Jean de Vrailly and Michael’s Diary.
The former gives us such a pompous ass that it’s painful to read the sections devoted to him. In the first twenty or so pages after he’s introduced, Jean de Vrailly tells us three separate times that he’s the best knight in the world, and that’s almost all he offers up. The sections given up to him are just dripping with so much arrogance that it would be comical if it wasn’t so grating.
Michael’s Diary is almost as bad when it first comes up halfway through the book. This one seems to serve as either a recap of the couple of sections that have just been read, or as an indication that time has moved on and nothing of major note has happened. It’s a bit like watching a TV show and halfway through the episode you get the voiceover saying “Previously, on…” rather than having it at the start.
The magic in The Red Knight is both good and bad at the same time. It’s good in that it’s something new, and it’s mostly well handled, but it’s bad in the way it’s first introduced. The first time we see the Red Knight using magic, I was just confused as to what had happened, and it wasn’t until later in the book when the use of magic was more explicitly detailed, that I realised what had actually happened earlier on.
Then there’s a different type of magic, where people are effortlessly brought back from the dead, or an entire army healed with barely the passing of an angel’s wings. Both of these instances seem odd, almost a case of “oh, I killed character off but now I want to use him again, let’s go resurrect him rather than rewriting his death and giving him a miraculous escape instead.” It’s an even bigger shame when one of the miraculously healed is the one character most deserving of a painful death.
Given the over-detailing of certain areas, the handful of unlikeables in the character list, the lack of chemistry in what’s supposed to be a romance et cetera, the one main area that grates on me is the world itself. I choose fantasy as my genre for the escapism, the better the worldbuilding, the more I can get drawn in to exploring it and enjoying myself. In The Red Knight, it was less worldbuilding and more worldchanging. For me, it’s bad enough that there were obvious Englands, Frances (including various phrases in French) and Scotlands (or at least their people), but at least those had different names – even if their connotations were clear (Alba, Galle…)
The main thing I don’t like to see in fantasy is best exampled here, with whole swathes of the real world pulled in to the story. Religion plays a major part (I refer back to the abbey setting), but the religion here is a not even disguised Christianity. We’re asked to believe in this fantasy world, but asked to include Christian terms, festivals and saints along with it. Rightly or wrongly, this to me just smacks of lazy writing. At least when Mark Lawrence did it in Prince of Thorns, the twist was that the setting actually was our world. Here there’s no such bombshell, so it reads something like Einstein being discussed in Feist’s Midkemia, or Jordan’s “Randland” including China with its Great Wall.
There are a lot of little issues that I have with this book, but the last one that I wanted to talk about is the writing itself. There’s too much focus on some areas and not enough on others, too much spent on setting up the next book (from what I’m told) and not enough focusing on doing the best job for this one. There’s a couple of characters who have no relevance to the plot at all, but get their own POV sections and are apparently meant as some sort of foreshadowing for book two in the series.
This doesn’t cut it for me – if it’s not needed in book one, just leave it out until book two, otherwise it just looks like the author has lost track of his cast, which is perhaps to be expected if three dozen of them are to get their own POV sections. Although not a POV character, there was at one point an entire paragraph dedicated to detailing the scar on one chap’s face when we meet him, only for us to never see him again. If only some of the characters we actually spend time with were detailed in the same way, it would give another plus point where it seems those are so few and far between.
Finally on the writing, the style itself caused me on several occasions to reread the previous few lines in an attempt to work out what was happening, who was putting whose helmet on whose head. There were several instances of paragraphs starting with a follow on from the previous sentence, where the use of a comma would be excused but a new paragraph just isn’t the correct use of English. If the sentence doesn’t make sense on its own, then there’s something wrong:
…and used his advantage to throw the lighter creature into his mates.
Stepped back again, and the postern crashed shut.
…he looked, ran a few steps, stopped, and looked again.
Heard the scrape of blades.
There’s also a huge number of paragraphs that start with “and” or “but” which irks me. The occasional one or two is forgivable, but when the number gets to a hundred or more, then it’s another story. The crazy thing is that I genuinely don’t think that number is an exaggeration.
All this aside, The Red Knight does have a number of good points to its merit, which makes it really frustrating to find so much wrong with it at the same time. For a book that started off with so much promise, I was left feeling disappointed. There’s a lot of potential in the story, but for me, the execution did not even get close to doing it justice, despite what everyone else seems to think.
It’s a bit like a tool downloaded on the internet – you check the functions, and you read the customer reviews, it seems to be just what you’re looking for. So you download it and start using it, only to find out after a while that your browser homepage has been changed, and there’s an unwanted toolbar added for good measure. There’s a load of additional functions that don’t add any value, and you never need to use. You keep giving it the benefit of the doubt, but eventually you admit to yourself that it’s just not the program you were looking for after all.
Overall: A novel of unfulfilled potential, with any positives effortlessly drowned out by a series of faults.
Dominish rating: 60%