The Traitor Son Cycle might be the best epic fantasy series ongoing right now. Cameron is known for his historical fiction (published as Christian Cameron), and he is really good at the things you would expect him to be good at. There is a lot of what I’ve seen called “vambrace porn.” Which has a certain negative connotation, but Cameron shows the rich tapestry of medieval life in a way fantasy all too rarely does. The battle scenes—and there are a lot of them, in the series and in this book—are phenomenal—tense, chaotic, and bloody. The character list is long, and those characters are distinct and think like people from a very different time. As the story blooms into an epic, the main characters grow and the minor characters flesh out. And the story takes a distinctly fantastic turn as godlike beings begin to take a more direct hand. Those fantastical elements are really, really good. Cameron continues to build on his interesting hermetical magic system. But it is his wild, wonderful Wild full of monsters and magic that makes The Traitor Son Cycle.
The Dread Wyrm, book three in The Traitor Son Cycle, picks up where The Fell Sword left off. Thorn continues to plot and the Wild to roil, the Galles continue to infiltrate the Albin court, the Black Knight leads an invasion from the north, and the Red Knight returns as Duke of Thrake for the king’s tournament. The tournament, as it turns out, is largely sidelined by bigger matters. The marches are preparing for another great incursion by the Wild, the Albin capital is more interested in what becomes really an invasion by Galles and the imprisonment of the queen, and both parties pull at Gabriel, the Red Knight. As does his mother.
It all has a frenetic, realistic quality, as events outpace characters’ plans. In a less talented writer’s hands the pacing could be ruinous. Cameron keeps things both hurtling along and on the tracks. He also has a talent for ending on a beat. There is a rhythm to his writing.
Royal Guards in brilliant scarlet escorted a tall young man whose honey-blond hair and elegant features might have been irkish. Indeed, many troubadours claimed irk blood flowed among the people of Occitan. They spoke a different form of Gallish, and they sang songs from Iberia and Ifriquy’a as well as from Alba and Galle. In coastal towns, there were even mosques, tolerated by the princes. Occitan was a land of song, and oranges.
And very skilled knights.
He is also darkly funny at times:
“Let’s win the battle. Then—we’ll have a command meeting.”
This made her smile. “Unless we’re dead.”
“Right, in which case the meeting is off.”
The Traitor Son Cycle is marked by Loads and Loads of Characters, but it is also very much the story of Gabriel Muriens—at one point described as looking like “an archangel on a binge”—and never more so than in book 3. The unlikeable and, even worse, at times uninteresting character from the first book has become one of the great characters in fantasy and a Power in his own world—a duke of the Empire, his family controlling the breadth of the Wall, commanding a tremendous private army and a fae magician in his own right.
No less is the wild, wonderful Wild, full of insectoid boglins, old-school elfish irks, great golden bears with paws that can wield an ax, massive wyverns, and reptilian daemons. It’s massively intriguing, less surreal perhaps than ür-examples of Mordor and the Blight, but much more complex. There is no existing Evil Overlord, at least not yet. It is a land of Powers, and a Power is first a Power and second a target. And the greatest powers of all are dragons, things just short of gods who can appear as mountainous, kaiju-scale reptiles but also any number of other forms and who can change reality with a thought.
The influence of the dragons on the story is something I’ve been worried about since their introduction—how do you maintain narrative tension and the role of the human characters when gods walk amongst them?—but Cameron (again) handles the problem adroitly. Their near omniscience is muddled like a creek when they stick their fingers in. And with great power comes great enemies, and in numbers. Being just god-like has its disadvantages.
Cameron otherwise dances on the razor edge of chaos. We appear to be in one of those dangerous second acts, but Cameron keeps the pedal to the floor. The worst I can say is that the first of many climaxes (hardly more than halfway through) outshines the latter. They weaken a bit as they go. The Black Knight’s role, in the end, ‘tis but a flesh wound, and another seemingly major plot point seems to fizzle.
So, when does the next book come out?