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Book Review: The Fell Sword

Written by Miles Cameron
Published by Gollancz

This book is the second part of The Traitor Son cycle, and it’s another huge chunk of medieval fantasy after the wonderful initially entry, The Red Knight (which I reviewed here). Cameron has written another epic story about the Red Knight aka the Captain aka Gabriel Muriens, as he expands the scope of the world he has created to include the machinations of other nations across the sea, civil war within Morea, and the higher powers that wish to destroy men and the world.

The prologue introduces things, including the Fell Sword of the title (it’s a weapon that will perform the same way in the real and the aethereal, forged inside a memory palace): there’s Morgan Mortirmir, a 16-year-old prodigy from Harndon, studying in the University in Liviapolis, the Imperial capital of Alba, situated in Morea. However, he can’t render potential into ops, which means he will be sent home. So he goes to a tavern to drink and think about killing himself because he doesn’t want to return to barbaric Harndon (even if he is the bastard son of a lord, he prefers refined Morea), but gets into a fight with Harald Derkensun, a Nordikan of the Guard (a giant of a man), although they end up friends after Derkensun beats him unconscious.

Meanwhile in Liviapolis, which is ruled by Emperor Andronicus, the Empire is in decline – there is no money for anything, especially the many unpaid soldiers, which is why there are plots … The Emperor rides out to meet his cousin, the Duke of Thrake, who is the Megas Ducas, commander of the Emperor’s armies, and the Duke’s son Demetrius, Despot of the North; when he does, Aeskepiles (magister to the Emperor) kills the guards, although he is stabbed by the Logothete (head of the Emperor’s spies), who is beheaded by Demetrius, and the Duke takes the Emperor prisoner. The Duke wants to take Liviapolis, but Derkensun was put on guard duty by the Logothete and spots trouble so raises the alarm and closes the gate. He goes to find someone in the authority in the city, but the Mayor and the Chamberlain are dead, as are the Scholae’s quarter guard, and assassins are trying to kill Lady Irene, daughter of the Emperor, so he lends his axe – Irene is saved and decides she needs an army to save the city, mercenaries like the ones already hired by the Emperor, led by a certain Red Knight …

The mercenaries are already on their way to Liviapolis – the Captain, Toby his squire, Mags the seamstress, Bad Tom, Ser Michael, Ser Gavin, Ser Alison, Gelfred the forester, Ser Alaceus the Morean, Ser Jehan – camped in Morea, having received word that their prospective employer has been captured. Meanwhile, the royal court of Harndon is busy: news has reached them that the Galles are counterfeiting the King’s coin, devaluing it; also they need money from those who don’t pay their taxes – the nobles, such as the Earl of Towbray and the Earl of Westwall. So Jean de Vrailly, the Gallish knight who came to the aid of the King at the siege of Lissen Carak in the first book, is sent to collect taxes while the armourer Master Pye is made Master of the Mint and commissioned to make new coins.

Near Albinkirk, the women are restoring the manor of Middlehill, with the help of Ser John Crayford the Captain of Albinkirk and Sister Amicia, clearing the corpses and avoiding Boglins still in the area. In Ticondaga Castle on the Wall, the strongest rock against the Wild, ruled by the Earl of Westwall and his wife Ghause Muriens, sister to the King of Alba and possessor of hermetical power of own. Their son is Ser Gavin, who sends news of the siege of Lissen Carak and the fact that Gabriel (the Captain) is alive – Gabriel is the bastard son of the Earl and Ghause, who they thought was dead.

We catch up with other characters from the first book: Bill Redmede, Jack of Jacks, is leading his men after the defeat at Lissen Carak, heading west into the Wild to possible salvation, when the Jacks are attacked by boglins, and they are saved by an Irk who calls himself Tapio Halfija, the Fairy Knight. Ota Qwan and Peter (now Nita Qwan) of the Sossag are in Squash County, having survived the siege of Lissen Carak, are deciding what to do best for their people. Meanwhile, Thorn, the villain of the first book, is in the north-west of the country, licking his wounds and pondering his next move, as something even more powerful circles him … Meanwhile, the King of Galle (de Vrailly’s cousin) is thinking about taking the north (Morea and Alba) but with a military force using a sellsword called the Black Knight, who had sailed to Ifrquy’a in the sought and conquered it, instead of his own knights.

Back in Liviapolis, after securing the title of Megas Ducas and all of the former Duke’s possessions as payment for his services, the Red Knight uses ars magicka to lead his men around the mountains and face down a force of the Duke’s army – the battle is described with Cameron’s usual excellent prose, putting you in the action and making you feel it all, alternating between the point of view of the Red Knight and the Duke, as well as the hermetical battle going on unseen between Aeskepiles and Harmodius (the magister of Harndon who died and took up residence in the Captain’s memory palace). The Red Knight’s mercenaries are joined by the Vardiotes (Eastern horse soldiers), who turn the tide of the battle and the Red Knight enters the city of Liviapolis while the Duke escapes. However, it’s not plain sailing – there are many attempts on the Captain’s life with poisons and magic, and there are the many different factions coming together for war and worse …

Cameron continues to impress with his ability to tell an exciting epic with a huge cast of characters and many different plotlines, and juggle it all with skill, passion, wit (‘Uh oh,’ muttered Harmodius. ‘I just kicked a god in the nuts.’) and intelligence. There is more of everything in this book – more characters, more countries (Etrusca, Iberia, Arles, Rhum), more bizarre creatures (Eeagues in the sea; hastenochs [monstrous armoured elks], Ruks [giants] on land), more history to the world he has created, more plot, more scope. I’ve tried to provide a flavour of the book, but it’s only a small taste – there is so much going on and yet Cameron keeps it all entertaining; he uses the same technique of telling the story from a character’s perspective under the heading of the character and location, with a small number of chapters compared with the (huge) size of the book. He has a great skill with briefly essaying characters in a vivid fashion, in addition to his talent for writing battle scenes (although there is nothing of the scale of the battles in the siege of the last book). The Fell Sword is a very good book, and I can’t wait for the next book in the cycle.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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