Written by Miles Cameron
Published by Gollancz
The Red Knight paperback is a huge, thick book – it could be used as a handy shield in a fight – and it is only the first part of The Traitor Son cycle. However, you won’t notice the size of the book when reading (well, apart from the weight) because you will be so absorbed in the story. This is Cameron’s first fantasy novel and it is an impressive achievement, rich with characters and detail (the author has a degree in medieval history and is a passionate re-enactor who participates in tournaments as a 14th-century knight), and you will be swept away by this adventure epic.
The Red Knight, or the Captain – he keeps his identity hidden for most of the book – is the leader of a mercenary army. Their services have been retained by the Abbess of Lissen Carak, an ancient convent/fortress in the north of Alba, because creatures of the Wild have been attacking and killing the local farmers. The Wild refers to the ‘uncivilised’ lands outside of society, full of mythical creatures – daemons, fairies, boglins, irks, trolls, wyverns, Qwethnethogs – and humans gone native, called Sossags; the creatures have been corralled by a Power of the Wild, called Thorn, to reclaim Lissen Carak, or as they know it, The Rock. Although the King has been notified, he and his armies are far to the south and will take time to arrive and defend Lissen Carak; it is up to the captain and his company to do what must be done.
This is a massive novel that takes its time to set up the world. It uses a similar style to George RR Martin – instead of Martin’s chapters titled after the character it follows, the sections within chapters are headed with the location and the character they follow, enabling Cameron to introduce his huge cast of characters: Sauce the female soldier; Jehannes the grizzled professional soldier; Bad Tom the seasoned veteran; Ser John Hayworth the old soldier in charge of Albinkirk; the Abbess with her secrets concerning the nuns and herself; Amicia the novice; Father Henry the priest; Ser Alcaeus the Emperor’s cousin; Desdirata the Queen and her ladies in waiting; Harmodius the Royal Magus; Gerald Random the merchant; Michael the Red Knight’s squire; Mags the seamstress; Jean de Vrailly and Gaston the knights from Galle who are used to the Rule of War not the Rule of Law; Peter the former slave who ends up with the Sossag; and Thorn the Power of the Wild and his secrets (and these are just a few). The slow build-up allows the characters to develop into fully rounded people so that we care about their fates when the eventual siege of Lissen Carak dominates the story, where the captain’s company is joined by Harmodius and the convoy of merchants led by Gerald Random and the farmers from the surrounding areas to survive the onslaughts of the Wild.
The world is a medieval setting with Christianity as the ruling religion, even if the Red Knights has no use for it. It is a gritty and brutal depiction of the knights of legend, bringing to life the realities of a company of soldiers and their squires and valets and archers and the knights themselves. However, it also has time for magic, based on Hermeticism and with a ritualistic nature that is finely crafted by Cameron – apart from Harmodius, who can use the power of sunlight to perform incantations, the Red Knight can do ‘workings’, his huntsman is an officially licensed Hermetic who is able to read information in a crime scene at the start of the book, not to mention Thorn who can enforce his will upon the creatures of the Wild using different magic. As a side aspect of the detailing of the use of magic, I enjoyed the use of the Red Knight’s memory palace as a way of describing the way his magic works.
The book is impressive but it excels in the description of combat – Cameron’s expertise in this arena and his writing skill mean that you are put in the middle of the fighting and made aware of the pain of simply wearing armour and the frantic nature of fighting with swords in the middle of an attack by thousands of creatures and the brutality of raw combat. It is exhilarating but also authentic and immersive, the deployment of tactics on the battlefield contrasted with butchering enemies with swords and axes with vision limited to a slit in the visor and the punching of arrows on strong armour. There is blood and death and heroics and sacrifice and nobility and slaughter, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous, although there is relief when it is over. The level of insider knowledge also means that it feels genuine; terms related to the area of medieval combat might require a dictionary but it indicates that the author knows this stuff and immerses the reading experience even more.
The Red Knight is a very good book and the Red Knight himself is a fascinating character. I was thoroughly gripped by this mammoth book and the world that Cameron created. I look forward with anticipation to the next book in the cycle.
Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.