The Traitor Son Cycle

Update, 5/23/18: This post has been updated to include comments on book 3 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.

By Miles Cameron

The Red Knight

I’ve been trying my hand at writing some fiction of my own recently, which means that as I’ve been reading other peoples’ books, I’ve found myself frequently switching back and forth between the perspective of someone who is invested in the story itself, versus being a more analytical observer (thinking about the structure of the book, the author’s intentions, etc.).

All that is to say, while reading Miles Cameron’s “The Red Knight,” I spent most of my “analytical” brain power thinking constructive thoughts like “I am sooo jealous of this guy’s writing.” Then I’d lose myself in the story for a bit, and emerge a few hours later going “wow, he’s so much better at this than I am.” So I guess, thanks, Mr. Cameron?

Seriously, though, I was really taken with this book, and I’m absolutely elated that there are four more books in the series already published. The story itself occurs amidst sort of a parallel universe version of medieval Britain around the 1300’s. Very early in the book, it becomes clear that the author is very familiar with the intricacies of things like period-specific arms, armor, horses, etc. By the time I reached the “about the author” at the end of the book, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Mr. Cameron (real name Christian Cameron) also writes historical fiction and has extensive experience with military re-enactment.

As discussed in this excellent episode of Writing Excuses, the danger in having done that much research is that you are tempted to use all that knowledge in your book, which can be overwhelming to readers (ultimately the book needs to be about characters, not saddles). With that said, while the book is certainly on the “historical fiction” end of the genre spectrum, I loved the detail. More importantly, I also loved the plot. It certainly isn’t easy reading, but if you enjoy the more sprawling,  darker, epic fantasy plots like The Wheel of Time, Malazan Book of The Fallen, and The Broken Empire, then you’ll likely love this series. I do note, however, that some people in the Amazon reviews did end up holding the high level of detail against the author.

The story itself focuses on the titular Red Knight, and his quest to hold a keep against the encroaching magical forces of the Wild. Like all the best stories, the nuances of the plot go much deeper than that, and I have no doubt that by the time I’ve read the latter books of the series, my understanding of what happened in book one will be different still.  It’s a dark tale (though not without humor), set against a background of war, magic and violence.

One downside I do want to mention: on the Kindle version of the book I read, there were quite a few typos. If you’re a stickler like me, that will no doubt break your immersion, which is a bummer. With that said, it certainly didn’t deter me from gobbling this one up, and I’ve already started inhaling book two.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading (despite some typos in the Kindle version)

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Wheel of Time, The Last Kingdom.


Below are updated comments on the later books in the series. Read on only if you’ve already read book one, or if you don’t care about spoilers.

The Fell Sword

Having just finished The Fell Sword, and begun The Dread Wyrm (book 3), I’m conflicted about how to review the series. In general, I thought The Fell Sword was a slight step down from The Red Knight. I’d argue Cameron moved a little too fast to open up his world (which was already brimming with details and characters), and the book suffered for it, particularly in the early-to-mid section. There’s an art to incorporating multiple POV’s into a book, and Cameron is quite good at it, but juggling a dozen POV’s is still a heavy lift for anyone. George RR Martin is probably the best in the business at it, but even he seems to have lost control of his narrative over time, so the struggle is real.

With that said, there is real payoff here for readers willing to stick with it through the rough patches, and it took me about 5 nanoseconds after finishing book 2 to pick up book 3. Like the initial book of the series, The Fell Sword is prototypical medieval, epic war fantasy.  Cameron is clearly an expert in the details of arms, armor, and era-specific content, and if that level of detail occasionally slows the story down, it also adds a richness to his novels that I appreciate and envy.

I do need to mention that the Kindle version of this book, like book one, needs some additional editing. Sometimes character’s names are randomly spelled wrong, and there are other similar errors that threaten to pull the reader out of the story.

When it’s all said and done, I’m going to retain the “mandatory reading” rating for now, even though I’m sure the series would appeal to a smaller slice of fantasy fans than a more refined and accessible series (see: Stormlight Archive). I’m vacuuming this stuff up, and so I’d like to make sure other people have the opportunity to hear about it as well.


The Dread Wyrm

My apologies for the lack of substantive blog updates- please blame Miles Cameron!

I’m still chugging along with the Traitor Son Cycle, and book 3 was more of the same (which is a good thing!). I do note that I’m seeing fewer typos lately, so it could be a reflection of him having more editing help later in the series.

I won’t add much more at the moment, other than to say that my rating for the series is unchanged: Mandatory Reading!

Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection

By Brandon Sanderson

I’ve already written about my admiration for Brandon Sanderson, who continues to produce a staggering volume of excellent writing (most recently embodied in The Stormlight Archive). I won’t belabor the point, except to reiterate that one of the really impressive things about Sanderson is the way in which he plans out his narratives, far, far in advance.

The clearest, if not yet fully realized, example of Sanderson’s foresight, is his claim that virtually all of his published works exist in the same universe (“the Cosmere”), despite occurring in seemingly disparate times and places. For most writers, creating a satisfying narrative structure for just a single book is challenge enough. Sanderson, on the other hand, aims to connect whole series, in a way that will presumably be satisfying to the devoted and attentive reader. For most, this would be a pipe dream, but I have all the faith in the world that Sanderson can pull it off.

All that brings me to Arcanum Unbounded, which is a collection of short stories set somewhere within “the Cosmere.” All of the stories are outgrowths of Sanderson’s previously published work, so readers who are familiar with Mistborn, Stormlight, etc. will find a number of familiar faces. Overall, it’s about 600 pages, so is a substantial and satisfying collection. Some of the stories are better than others (I didn’t love the Allomancer Jak one, for instance), but the overall content is quite strong.

I need to give special mention to one particular story, Mistborn: Secret History. More than anything else in the collection, this story really exemplifies the kind of long range planning that I described earlier. I first read the Mistborn series in 2010. I can’t tell you how weird it was to, in 2017, sit down and read a story about Kelsier (a pivotal series character) and have my understanding of the entire series totally changed. I was flabbergasted. This was exactly the kind of satisfying “twist” that authors are looking to produce, and Sanderson didn’t even put it in the original trilogy!? To know what kind of reveal it was going to be, and yet to delay publicizing it until 6 years after the original trilogy has been out? This is a man who not only has a plan, but who is confident and methodical about following it.

So to sum up, if you like Sanderson’s work, you should absolutely read this short story collection. If you haven’t read his stuff yet, I’d recommend starting with The Way of Kings.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

The Night Angel Trilogy

By Brent Weeks

How have I not written about Brent Weeks yet? Time to rectify this oversight.

The Night Angel Trilogy is Weeks’ first published work, and though it’s by no means a perfect collection of books, it demonstrates that Weeks has a firm grasp on plot, character, and what makes a reader unable to put a book down.

The trilogy’s plot centers of Azoth, a street urchin who has bigger, and darker, aspirations. After being taken under the wing of Durzo Blint, the realm’s most accomplished Wetboy (think: assassin), Azoth’s life changes dramatically, and he too begins to train as a killer-for-hire. That’s the basic premise of book one, but this is one of those stories that really expands over time, and by the conclusion of book three, the whole scope of the story is quite different than what we began with.

These are dark books, similar in tone to Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, so reader beware. Then again, if you like things a little grittier, than this may be right up your alley. There are certainly some flaws, which isn’t surprising considering this represents Weeks’ first published work. Most notably, the scope and pacing of the end of the trilogy gets a little out of whack. The magic system is quite cool, but there is definitely some “power creep” that sets in, and by the end, several of our characters have grown into Nietzschean supermen-types. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it does threaten to break the readers’ immersion from time to time.

With all that said, these books go down real smooth, and I’ve happily read them twice over the last five years or so. There are some great characters, and there was never a point at which I was inclined to put the books down. This isn’t Weeks’ best work (his more recent Lightbringer series holds that crown), but it’s an excellent dark tale of magic, assassins and love. If you enjoy the darker side of fantasy, read with confidence.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Price of Thorns, The Shadow of What Was Lost.

 

The Magister Trilogy

By C. S. Friedman

In Feast of Souls, the first book of the Magister Trilogy, C. S. Friedman introduces a truly novel (to my knowledge, at least) magic system. The imperious and nearly omnipotent Magisters can wield incredible magical abilities, but their powers draw upon the life force of a randomly chosen other individual. As long as they are willing to ignore the fact that their powers literally come at the price of someone’s else’s life, Magisters can use their powers willy-nilly. The only exception to this rule is that when a Magister’s “host” eventually kicks the bucket, the Magister is totally vulnerable for a short period of time.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a writing podcast created by Brandon Sanderson and some colleagues (Writing Excuses), and one of Brandon’s observations that I like a lot is that in fantasy, “the constraints on using magic are more interesting than the magic itself.” That is, we can imagine a character who can overcome every obstacle, effortlessly, with magical powers, but that’s not an interesting story. What is interesting is in seeing a system of rules created, and then watching our protagonist exploit those rules in order to overcome obstacles. In that sense, I think Friedman has a great setup here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together.

My main beef with the implementation of Friedman’s characterization of the Magisters is that their whole shtick is about avoiding death (which in practice means being really careful about the circumstances in which they use significant amounts of power). However, early in book one, it becomes clear that an ancient enemy may be re-emerging, which would be a clear threat to the magisters. Nevertheless, Friedman allows virtually all of the magisters to put their heads in the sand, even though some of them were alive the last time this enemy existed, and should be highly aware of this threat. It may seem like a quibble, but it really drew me out of the story, and made it difficult for me to see various characters’ actions as being believably motivated. That’s a dangerous slope, and indeed, I petered out early in book two.

Final analysis? These aren’t bad books by any means, but they didn’t capture and hold my attention.

Rating: 1 – Skip it

 

 

 

The Sword Of Shannara Series

By Terry Brooks

Between Terry Goodkind and now Terry Brooks, I’ve really been plumbing the depths of “guys named Terry whose fantasy novels I read as a kid” lately. My most recent Terry-related experience was inspired by noticing the MTV(!?) show The Chronicles of Shannara, which somehow I had missed up to this point. As someone who read virtually everything Brooks published between like 1997-2002, I was curious to see what MTV (seriously, MTV!?) would make of his Shannara books. Spoiler alert: the show is truly awful. 

After watching the travesty of a TV show, I felt compelled to go back to the source literature to see if my fond memories of Shannara were justified. I can still vividly remember some of the books’ best scenes: the Home Guard’s Crispin standing against the Reaper, Allanon wrestling with the cackling Jachyra, the destruction of the Druid’s home at Paranor. Not bad staying power for books that I haven’t read for 15 years! In any case, I picked up The Wishsong of Shannara to refresh my memory (it was the first in the series that I could find on my shelves).

What’s the verdict? Well, it’s mixed. The good news is that the books are 1000% better than the hormone-filled dreck that is the MTV show (seriously Terry, couldn’t you get HBO to bite?). The bad news is that they’re definitely a bit amateurish, or at least Book 3 (published in 1985) was, so it’s possible they improved later in the series. Their main flaw, to my mind, is that Brooks is often guilty of violating the “show, don’t tell” writing maxim. Characters often give monologues about their innermost motivations, only to have other characters mentally recap the same information to the reader, which gets old fast. The reader is really never asked to do any work, instead, everything is spoon-fed, and characters are generally pretty 2-D.

So, in general, I was a little disappointing upon my re-reading. The good news is that I loved these books when I was in the 12-18 year old range (or so), just like I loved pretty much everything else Brooks wrote (The Word and the Void Series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover). With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and give this series the “young adult tag.” For younger readers who are mostly interested in a satisfying, linear story-line, Brooks’ books are still a great choice! For more mature readers, maybe not so much.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Running with the Demon, Split Infinity

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens That Made England

By Dan Jones

Let’s start by getting this out of the way: this is not technically a fantasy book (and it’s definitely not a sci-fi book). The Plantagenets is a history book, chronicling the era in which England was dominated by the Plantagenet family line (1154-1485). Nevertheless, I’m listing the book here, and will be filing the review under “fantasy” for ease of cataloging.

The reasons why I’m including this in the blog are that A) it’s an excellent book, and B) it basically reads like a fantasy adventure sans magic. Granted, the book does span over 300 years, but it includes a bevy of important figures and events that helped to inform ancient and modern mythologies: Richard the Lionheart, returning from the Crusades to confront his brother John (who, despite being best known as a nasty lion in the animated Robin Hood, went on to have a long and moderately successful kingship of his own); the ravages of the Black Death; The Hundred Years’ War with France; the rise and fall of Thomas Beckett; the creation of the Magna Carta; the sinking of the White Ship. The list goes on!

This was a time of incredible change and Jones does his best to give an even-handed account of the strengths and foibles of the monarchs, their families, their friends, and their foes. One of the things that I like about this extremely broad perspective is that it helps to make it clear just how arbitrary the course of history can be. It’s easy to look back and see things like the creation of the Magna Carta, or the expulsion of the English from France and think “well of course things turned out that way,” but Jones helps to show just how unexpected or unlikely these things really were.

In past reviews, I’ve commented on my preference for strong plot over strong prose, and this history of early England is basically nothing but plot. Jones’ writing is excellent, but it’s clear that his goal is to keep the story moving, and there’s not an ounce of fat on the book. I very much enjoyed it, and am looking forward to reading his subsequent book about the time period covering the War of the Roses (a time period which, incidentally, inspired significant portions of A Song of Ice and Fire).

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The War of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, The Last Kingdom

 

1/22/18 Blog Update

Hi Everyone,

When starting this blog, I initially adopted the following system for rating books:

1 – Skip it

2 – Guilty Pleasure

3 – Recommended with Reservations

4 – Highly Recommended

5- Mandatory Reading


Now that the blog is closing in on its one-year anniversary, I’ve realized that there was too much overlap between the categories of “guilty pleasure” and “recommended with reservations.”

As such, I’ve re-worked the rating system by removing the “guilty pleasure” category, and folding its previous entrants into the revised “recommended with reservations” category. The revised system is as follows:

1- Skip It

2- Recommended with Reservations

3 – Highly Recommended

4- Mandatory Reading

Thanks,

Sam