[This review contains mild spoilers regarding the premise of the novel.]
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review, mainly because I’ve been run ragged working on my new business, Ruskin Woodshop. I have been reading, though, or at least listening to audiobooks while I work. I mentioned my bang-for-the-buck audiobook buying system in my review of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which, like The Red Knight, is an epic fantasy novel that I bought primarily because it was long and cheap.
The Way of Kings was an amazing book, and led me to believe that I’d been missing something by not reading fantasy since my dabblings with The Sword of Shannara in seventh grade. As it turns out, I wasn’t. I’ve listened to a handful of other, highly touted fantasy novels in the months between The Way of Kings and now, but none of them have delivered the same punch.
To be clear, The Red Knight is quite well written, it’s just not great. It follows the titular Red Knight, the leader of a company of mercenaries (who’s also only 20 or 21… seriously, what’s with fantasy authors making their war-hero protagonists also be teenagers?) who contracts to protect an abbey from the dark denizens of the Wild. These evil beings are such things as wyverns and ogres and boglins (not goblins, boglins), and all are under the command of a vaguely described creature known as Thorn.
Aside from this overly stark categorization of humans as good and Wild beings as evil, Cameron actually imbues his characters some interestingly murky ethics. While the Red Knight eventually grows close to the abbey’s residents and fights for them out of loyalty rather than money, he also sexually assaults some of the abbey’s young nuns. Each of the mercenaries has a heart of gold, but they at least have a few propensities toward sinfulness. This might not seem like much, but my chief complaint about Sanderson’s writing is that his heroes are good and noble far beyond human capability, which undercuts the drama.
Anyway, Cameron excels at creating a lifelike world, which makes sense because evidently he is a medieval historian. He describes the process of putting on armor too often, and in too painstaking a level of detail (he uses the word sabaton about a thousand times), but the upside of that detail is a sense of the mud beneath the horses’ hooves, and the staggering difficulty of realistic medieval fighting.
Unfortunately, that’s just about all we get here: fighting. The Red Knight’s story, the primary story of the novel, involves the creatures of the Wild laying siege to Lissen Carak, where the abbey lies. There are about a dozen individual battles, and hundreds of pages devoted to strategies and tactics, and their execution. Essentially, this is a novel of tactics, less than a novel of motivations. Why the Wild attacks is much less important, in the long run, than how it attacks.
Additionally, everything that’s not based on history feels wildly exaggerated and fictional. The magic system in this novel is vast and impossible to communicate wholly to the reader, and so it feels like a cop out every time magic is used. Cameron references hundreds of spells that can be cast, and the novel’s many magic users can combine their reserves of “power” to battle great foes. Which means that anytime anyone is in real trouble, someone can cast a spell and save them, and when that spell is plucked from the hundreds we don’t know of, it feels too deus ex machina to be satisfying.
It’s a shame, because Cameron writes well, and his scenes which do not revolve entirely around tactics or magic are quite excellent. It’s just a shame that they’re also quite rare.
Similar reads:The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson; Blood Song, by Anthony Ryan