Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Review] The Red Knight

Wow, this holiday is just flying by, and while I haven't had time to continue my re-read of A Feast with Dragons, I did finally - finally - manage to finish up Miles Cameron's The Red Knight. It seems that "Miles Cameron" is but one of several pen names belonging to author Christian Cameron, and that The Red Knight isn't nowhere near being his debut novel - which surprised me when I found out, because by all accounts this novel feels like an author's somewhat stumbling first book, a little gem of a story that could have needed some heavier editorial management. At the same time, The Red Knight in several ways is the novel I've read post-A Song of Ice and Fire that comes closest in capturing some of the magic George R.R. Martin has kept in his bottle all by himself. Following Martin's success there has of course been a whole slew of fantasy slanting toward a grittier style with more subdued magic, but The Red Knight somehow hews closer to Westeros in feel even though it has a veritable (and literal) onslaught of fantastic creatures that perhaps would feel more at home in Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen or even J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings...

...and I was not far from the mark, I realized, when I read the author's afterword (in a change of pace, the usual thank yous can be found at the back of the book) in which he mentions J.R.R. Tolkien as the author's absolute favorite, and where he insinuates that his number two is...Steven Erikson. Say one thing about 'Miles', he knows what's up with Steven.

Right, so The Red Knight isn't the longest book in the world, yet I took my sweet time reading it (the US paperback clocks in at 672 pages) - but that's because I'm so distracted by the sixty-four other hobbies besides reading fantasy I engage in. This novel is well-paced and I'm sure that a more single-minded reader can finish it in a day or two.

The story is fairly simple - at least at the outset - a mercenary captain, the Red Knight, takes on a contract which involves defending a holy site - a place of power - from the forces of the Wild; the Wild in this case being just what it sounds like - beasts and sentient plants and trees and animals, now under the command of the mysterious Thorn, who is throwing nature at the holy abbey of Lissen Carrack. It begins with a simple investigation and branches outward to envelop more and more characters, with a twist here and a twist there, some predictable, others not, and on the way taking influences from George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Steven Erikson - you know, the greats - but also at times reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, and other luminaries of the wider genre. Yet through it all, I felt that The Red Knight retained its own identity, if barely.

The thing about The Red Knight, though, is that it works as this amalgam of fantasy, where you can go from high fantasy (powerful magics, terrible creatures) to the gritty (body parts flying, mud and dust and pain), from bleak and sad (a certain funeral) to uplifting and triumphant, with characters ranging from the utterly stereotypical (Bad Tom) to the complex and mysterious (Desiderata), from the inspired and poignant (the whole denouement) to the blunt (the many scraps, fights, battles).

Yet it is very easy to pin-point the various influences, which is a strange feeling; while reading I could be thinking, "Oh, right, here he is taking a cue from Erikson, and this is so George RR Martin." 

Where Martin has an obsession with detailing medieval cuisine, Cameron delights in describing armor, and can gleefully spend a paragraph describing how a squire has to work to strap a knight's armor on, detailing every piece of equipment - and I have to say I prefer this to food - reading The Red Knight really brings home how cool armor can be, vambraces, greaves, pauldrons, backplates, padding, and all. Weapons are given a shorter shrift, but the effect is that it brings to life the 'medieval' feeling, which perhaps stands in stark contrast to the forces of the Wild, which are described in a much more vague way. A more immediate similarity with Martin's works is the use of "Ser" instead of "Sir". It took me one page to get over it; it just works in The Red Knight as well, perhaps because everything that has to do with the flower of chivalry - arms and armor, coat of arms, battle formations etc. feels so real.
As I said, The Red Knight is an amalgam of fantasy, and the aspects relating to the mercenary company, the knights, the battles, the strategies and tactics, all that stuff, is well and deep in the tradition of militaristic fantasy.

On the other hand, the Wild hews most closely to Tolkien, with names like 'irks' and 'boglins' perhaps somewhat obvious riffs on 'orcs' and 'goblins' (you'll be surprised when you finally get Cameron's versions described, however). The Wild also has an ally in the human tribes of the Sossag, which are basically Cameron's version of Martin's wildlings (even the name...); they even come from beyond a wall. The Sossag are a notch cooler though, in my opinion, based purely on their culture being more intriguing, with their cool war paint and shit.

Another similarity to Martin is Cameron jumping between a (large) number of characters, although Cameron does not master this at Martin's level, not keeping himself to the limited view. Cameron does not split his chapters by viewpoint, and can flit between many in the same chapter (the chapters are very long, though); here, Cameron's writing more closely resembles Steven Erikson's style. Sometimes it is hard to know where one character's point of view ends, and another character's begins; this is one of the flaws of the novel which made me think that The Red Knight was a young author's debut.

There is a lot more Erikson-influences to be found: Like Erikson, Cameron never lingers long with any character (except the Red Knight), and he seldom gives us a complete picture of their thoughts, so that they remain somewhat elusive. The effect is approximately the same as with Erikson's menagerie of characters - it takes getting used to, especially after reading Martin where you practically inhabit his characters, and it tends to blur the lines between characters. At several points I had to go back and re-read to understand who it was I was reading about; in the end, however, it all comes together quite nicely, and you know more about most of the characters. In the case of the Red Knight himself, Cameron gives us a ton of mystery as to his parentage, his upbringing, but never resolves anything conclusively - he leaves it all up to the reader to connect the dots. In one sense it's a bit frustrating, but on the other hand it kept me reading, and I am certainly considering buying the sequel, The Fell Sword. 

Another similarity to Erikson is the way in which Cameron describes magic being unleashed on the battlefield; at times it felt as if I had been teleported to the world of Malaz in terms of scope and destructive forces raining upon the hapless heroes (who, in Martin-fashion, aren't clear-cut; like much of fantasy post-A Game of Thrones, there's no clear distinction between good and evil here). There's more, much more, and the more I think about it the more I see the influence of Steven Erikson on this work (while I initially was going for an "If you like A Game of Thrones, you're going to like this!" angle. So if you like both Erikson and Martin, you're basically set.

Another point in The Red Knight's favor is the magic 'system' (I doubt there's that much of a system in place, but you know what I mean, how the magic in this world works), which allows for a number of interesting ways of handling the plot, though it tends to take over too much for my taste as the story progresses - the book really is at its best when it's hard men making hard decisions (but that's personal taste, of course - I like medieval militaristic stuff).

Yeah, I could go on and on about this book, but I have one more trip to make before the summer holiday is over, and I need to pack. When I get back, life will hopefully regain a semblance of normality and I can continue my re-read of A Feast with Dragons.

Before I leave, I have to say that The Red Knight comes with one giant caveat - you have to swallow a whole lot of typos, syntax errors, and sequences where you'd expect an editor to step in for some quality rearrangement. In fact, I don't think I have ever read a novel which needed another round with the editorial pen than this one. Cameron's vivid and enthusiastic writing got me through it - I was very rarely bored reading this.

I have the book as a physical copy, but because reading actual books is something of a struggle these days (always someone who needs the lights out once I'm ready to read), I put it back on the shelf and bought the e-book version instead (so it was entertaining enough for me to buy it twice), which I finally finished last night. I do not know whether the horrendous amount of typos etc. is limited to the e-book version only.

I am completely unable to really make up my mind about this book. At its best it is really, really good, but it has its weak parts. Looking back at it, it has some memorable scenes and locations, and a few notably interesting characters (The Red Knight, the Lachlans, Ser Jean deVrailly), it does an excellent job describing the military side of things, it has an aura of mystery (sometimes bluntly shattered with comments like "I've always wanted a magical sword" which kind of reminds me of Erikson who sometimes jokingly adds similar stuff - like the Bucket of Healing in Deadhouse Gates) - it is not a very original work; the influences are painted thick at times - yet it somehow comes into its own. Sometimes I wished a more comprehensive description; at other times I was confused by the sheer amount of characters. But through it all, I ended up liking this. If Cameron can get himself a proper editor (maybe he did, The Fell Sword has already been out a year), it could become even better. There's some serious abuse of the English language in there. Not as bad as, say,  R.A. Salvatore of course, but it stands out so much more here because the author is a great story-teller, with enthusiasm shining through it all.

So while I recommend The Red Knight to y'all, I'd also recommend at least reading an excerpt first, just so you can get a feel for what this is all about.

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