Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Miles Cameron: The Red Knight

Although it didn’t turn out at all to be what I hoped it would be, I was still pretty taken with The Red Knight. What I’d been hoping for was an emergency fix of Joe Abercrombie to tide me over the wait until the next real Abercrombie book. The Red Knight had a nicely downbeat start, with down at heel mercenaries showing up to do a small contract at a big monastery. The characters were smart and self aware and they seemed to be facing a nice little human scaled challenge which would keep them busy for the length of the book, and involve neither quests nor the end of the world.

While the book remained blessedly free of quests, it turned out to have all kinds of apocalypse on its mind, and The Red Knight his own bad self turned out to be less hard-bitten mercenary commander and more golden child of destiny. However, by the time this became obvious, the book had its hooks in me and I stuck with it for the ride. Sure, there’s a destined saviour of humanity gumming up the foreground, but there’s a decent cast of other characters to root for and a nicely complicated background which Cameron sensibly doesn’t explain too much. I liked his approach to magic, which is usually a problem in fantasy novels, especially when it’s being used for combat effects. I got a bit tired of him endlessly showing his work on the high medieval armour and weapons. Yes, getting the details right can make your action seem grounded and authentic, but it has to be incidental, not the apparent point of whole paragraphs. 

The best thing about the book is that it’s solidly locked into a single incident; the bad guys are trying to take out the monastery, and the good guys are trying to keep them out, and everything that happens in the book is the escalation of hostilities as both sides throw more and more into the battle. It’s rare that a fantasy book holds such a simple focus; usually it’s a pile of incidents all over the landscape to ratchet up the tension for one big showdown three books down the line. Instead of incidents we get people, each being pulled in turn into the growing mess around the monastery. It’s a good idea, though Cameron doesn’t always pull it off as well as he wants to; several times I found myself switched back to a character we hadn’t heard from for a while and having no idea who it was or why it mattered. 

It’s shockingly proof-read, at least in the e-book version; this is one where hard copy might make for a better reading experience. Still a pretty solid book; I swept straight out of that and optimistically into the followup, which is as good a test as any of whether a book’s got its job done.

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