Backlist Review: Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

Friday, May 6, 2016
Title: Knight's Shadow
Author: Sebastien de Castell
Genre: fantasy
Series: Greatcoats #2
Pages: 606
Published: March 2015
Source: sent for review and purchased
Rating: 4.5/5

Following his beloved debut, Traitor's Blade, Sebastien de Castell returns with volume two of his fast-paced fantasy adventure series, inspired by the swashbuckling action and witty banter of The Three Musketeers. Knight's Shadow continues the series with a thrilling and dark tale of heroism and betrayal in a country crushed under the weight of its rulers' corruption.

A few days after the horrifying murder of a duke and his family, Falcio val Mond, swordsman and First Cantor of the Greatcoats, begins a deadly pursuit to capture the killer. But Falcio soon discovers his own life is in mortal danger from a poison administered as a final act of revenge by one of his deadliest enemies. As chaos and civil war begin to overtake the country, Falcio has precious little time left to stop those determined to destroy his homeland.

Second in the series, Knight's Shadow is the rare fantasy sequel that hardly misses a step, especially considered its over six hundred page length. Traitor's Blade was an impressive debut in 2014, but the ante has definitely been upped by its sequel and by the author himself. Sebastien de Castell has crafted another well-paced, intricately plotted story to drop his trio of heroes in; from the start it is a whirlwind of adventure and intrigue, assassination attempts and extended betrayals. Having the benefit of an established world, de Castell's second novel is more ambitious in its themes and plots than TB ever tried to be. Not only has the scope for the story and the world of Tristia expanded, the cast also has grown from its beginnings, but the new additions are welcome and bring new life to the weary and dogged original Greatcoats. 

Falcio remains the inimitable main character and his POV feels familiar and just as authentic the second time around. This is a man that has been through depression, torture, being hunted like an animal, and more, and yet... is still fighting for his years-dead King.  He's a tragic figure, but the gloomy aspects of his personality and life are brightened by his passion and his friendships with Kest, Brasti, Valiana, and others. This time around Falcio has more than just the usual Ducal Knights messing up Falcio's plans for Aline and her throne (though there are those aplenty, of course. This is Tristia, after all), and his trials in Knight's Shadow are pretty much unrelenting. There's magic and mayhem, sadistic would-be-queens, and even his own legend to contend with over the course of this long book. It's often takes a dark and brutal turn, but Falcio (and Brasti, quip master that he tries to be) carry it and keeps it from being too grimdark. 

De Castell's world of Tristia has always felt like a fantasy version of France, albeit one with the Three Musketeers are real and fighting against the unjust Ducal feudal system. It still has those echoes of our world and our real-world history, but now with two books into the series, it feels ever more like a place of only the author's imagination. The tradition of itinerant judges that inspired that facet of the story and the Greatcoats' overall mission are likewise noticeable, but de Castell's version of traveling warrior judge-minstrels (troubajudges?) with fantastic coats are now uniquely and identifiably of his own creation. The small details worked into the narrative are the ones that create the larger world of Falcio and Kest and Brasti. The atmosphere of each duchy the Greatcoats travel within are shown and slowly coalesce this into a viable, envisionable world. Getting more detail on the world itself was great, but the religion/magic angle remains frustratingly oblique despite the plot directly involving both. Even with Kest's unique authority, there's still more questions than anwers.

Knight's Shadow is a great sequel, but sometimes Falcio can be dense, so dense it drags down pacing and progression of the book. In Traitor's Blade, it was obvious to everyone but Falcio what was going on and what he needed to do for chapters before he himself realized the answer and got the resolution moving. If there's any issue I have with the plotting or characterization in Knight's Shadow, it's that same issue rearing its head. Again, it takes the main characters and allies a bit too long to figure out what is happening around them; long after readers have figured it out. I know there's more struggle going on with each individual character this time around -- Kest's self-destructive streak, Brasti's growing disillusionment, Valiana's lack of self-worth or care, Darriana's lack of commitment or empathy -- but it can be frustrating to read when almost all of them act willfully ignorant to further the plot's needs. 

There's a lot for fantasy fans to love in the ongoing Greatcoats series. Sebastien de Castell has only grown as a writer since his debut and Knight's Shadow is a reflection of that growth and understanding. It's a taut read, and one that goes quickly thanks to clever plotting, great characters, and a deft hand for worldbuilding and backstory.  It's an entertaining blend of fantasy and the camaraderie of the Three Musketeers; Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are the heart of these books and it's nearly impossible to resist their charm, be it fatalistic, irreverent, or stoic. The reliance on the unnecessary and overused sff tropes that the first was a victim of (coughfridgingcough) are largely gone, and the book is rarely less than stellar. Though it had been a while since I last read or reviewed Traitor's Blade, these are not the kinds of books you forget. They are the kind you remember and recommend.

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