Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

The Fell Sword is the second part of the Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron, a sequel to The Red Knight. This story takes a dramatic departure from The Red Knight, by encompassing a much larger span of Cameron’s fictional-but-kind-of-real continent (France, Byzantium, England, and Canada) and by The Fell Sword matches The Red Knight in quality of storytelling, but there are a few details in which the first book displayed better writing.
drawing more explicitly from myth and folklore to act as parallels.

The greatest strength of The Fell Sword is in how Cameron alludes to a variety of medieval texts and myths: from the story of Arthur to Geoffrey of Monmouth. As someone who has recently come to medieval literature, it was blast spotting the various references, which without that background, may appear as random. One instance that stands out is when some of Cameron’s characters are fighting the Ruk—giants sent from the Wild that was detailed in The Red Knight. Although the instance doesn’t end with Ser John throwing the biggest giant over a cliff as in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the structure was very similar. When Geoffrey originally wrote History of the Kings of Britain, it was to create a new history of England to assert the legitimacy of the Normans. The giants, the original inhabitants of Geoffrey’s Alba, had to be deposed when they refused to accept the rule of Brutus. Cameron’s story makes an interesting comparison as his characters fight back the giants in order to keep control of the borders against the Wild, and as in Geoffrey, there is a question of who has the actual right to own and use the land.

Another allusion that is applied more broadly is the backdrop of a retelling of Arthur. The most fun of reading the book was trying to figure how Cameron cast his characters, and how they differ from the original telling. The events of the story build in an intricate, interesting manner to parallel the Arthur story, from the betrayal of Lancelot and Guinevere of Arthur and the rise of Mordred. Cameron twists these events by using complex, lifelike characters that show that the story is not as straightforward as Mallory would have modern readers believe. Cameron casts doubt on the betrayal of Guinevere in the question of the faithfulness of Queen, and depending on who Mordred may be, if he has designs on the Arthur figure. Indeed, a direct parallel is in the figure of Ghause, who’s given a perspective for the first time in The Fell Sword, and she lives up to her wicked counterpart (admittedly, in a far more interesting way). Trying to puzzle out where the story is going based on the Arthurian inspiration adds more value than the plot on its own, which in The Red Knight, felt like it was going helter skelter from one adventure to the next.

One aspect that Cameron uses to great effect is the overarching plot that was started at the very end of The Red Knight—that the main plot connecting the disparate characters are that they are possible pawns used at the will of dragons. The theme of the world’s most epic chess game has been used in many stories before, but Cameron uses mystery very effectively to keep the reader guessing what events are influenced by dragons over free will. However, the more advanced the plot became, the more oblique the dragons became, until the reader comes to know a Sauron-esque enemy much better. It was incredibly satisfying as a reader when the part of the dragons was acknowledged aloud.

While The Fell Sword was certainly a fun read, there was some areas where it lacked in a way that The Red Knight had no issue. In particular, the role of female characters, even ones given direct perspectives, was problematic. In The Red Knight, I can remember if I try that most of the female viewpoints being dominated by concern for men: attraction to them, the attraction men had for them, marriages, etc. However, The Fell Sword drags this unsavory aspect much more to the surface, where any time any woman is given a perspective, they don’t possess any independent thoughts of their own—and it is wearisome and two dimensional. I think one of the reasons why The Red Knight avoided this faux pas was because it was set in Lissen Carak, an abbey, full of religious women who stood in solidarity apart from men. It is easy to appreciate women as holding power in their fertility, and perhaps Cameron’s portrayal is true to the time he’s portraying, but I didn’t understand why when he rewrote the Arthur story, he couldn’t also rewrite this aspect. Even Amicia, a strong-willed character naturally, is consumed only by thoughts of the Red Knight.

Another trap that The Fell Sword falls for in a much more complex manner is one that is common to many fantasy novels: the trap of magic. I personally love Cameron’s style of magic, a blend of philosophy and physics that alter reality. It was more of Cameron’s application of magic that becomes troublesome. Several times, magic heals characters who sounds as if (and sometimes are) on the brink of death. It has a very deus ex machine feel to it when this act is performed repeatedly and bends the suspension of disbelief. Magic is truly the glue for the story, and outside of healing, Cameron handles it deftly as an instrument of war and a means of uniting unlike forces. However, several times Cameron’s characters questions why they don’t merely kill off troublesome characters, with enough frequency that it becomes problematic. I’m hoping that in the third book (given where The Fell Sword left off, there almost certainly will be a third one) we’ll see a more judicious use of magic.

The Fell Sword will be available in the US on March 11, but it was released in the UK on January 30, so I got my copy from an online UK bookseller. Apparently it came out in the UK recently that Miles Cameron, the author of The Red Knight and The Fell Sword, is actually historical fiction writer (of some fame, though I had never heard of him) Christian Cameron. He discusses it on his blog, but what he doesn’t address is why he felt the need to take on a nom de plume. A hardened fantasy reader may see as it shame for being associated with genre fiction: an idea that is not entirely dispelled by Cameron. 


  1. Thanks for the lovely review. As for the nom de plum, I was ordered to it by editors. I'd never use one if left to my own devices. Thanks!

    1. Wow, I am deeply honored by your reply! I wrote this immediately after reading it, and time has been favorable to my initial reservations: I wish I was rereading The Fell Sword instead of the books I'm currently reading. That's interesting to know about your nom de plum being an editorial decision. I read after posting this that the Traitor Son Cycle has five books planned, and as a fangirl of yours, I'm ecstatic.

  2. Ashley, I was especially interested by your views on female characters. I think there's a balancing act to writing fantasy culture--I try to reflect my own beliefs (Rebecca Almspend, Sauce) but if I move the culture too much to where I might (personally) want it, I'm not in the matrix of identity issues that (sadly) faced medieval European women. I don't say this to be defensive--I think your comments are apt. And I enjoyed them--they focused me. BTW there's a forum on my Chris Cameron page where I confess we mostly talk about arms and armour, but we do sometimes intellectual stuff too. And thanks again. BTW, we firmed up the five books yesterday--no longer a wish, but now a contract. Enjoy!

    1. I checked your official website--very cool about the forum! And you're right to point out Rebecca Almspend and Sauce, two lady characters who buck the system. They weren't totally immune from romance demanding their attention, but they certainly did things independent of men. I've loved Sauce since her first introduction in The Red Knight, and I enjoyed seeing Rebecca grow as a character (although it's pretty clear she's getting into powers out of her depth).

      I have joined the Online Agora as unionjane, and you'll see me start posting this weekend. Thanks for the link! I'll be watching with a weather eye for future book announcements. And meanwhile, I plan on trying some of your "straight" historical fiction. So excited!

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