It was the false dawn; the time when old people die, when hopes fail, and when ambuscades lose their nerve, when men call out and wives comfort them.
Cameron is telling one hell of a story. The Plague of Swords shows just how big a story Cameron is telling. Book 1 keeps it small, telling a Legend-esque siege story. Book 2 tells another small story, shifting venues from an England analogue to an Eastern Roman Empire analogue, while at the same time building on minor plot threads started in the first book. Book 3 starts bringing all of those plot threads together for a Storm of Swords-esque bang. There is an inevitable letdown, but Cameron handles things considerably better than Martin did. What do you do after bringing so many plot threads to a head in Book 3? You bust your world wide open.
(My review of book 5 is now up.)
A carefully constructed structure is the best thing about The Traitor Son Cycle. Well, that, and the great fight scenes. And the loving attention to historical detail. And the elaborate and innovative worldbuilding. And the dragon demi-gods. A carefully constructed structure is among the many great things about The Traitor Son Cycle.
The Plague of Swords opens immediately after the events of The Dread Wyrm. The forces of good are beginning to see just how fragile their great victory was. Their armies are depleted. The emperor is dead. The new alliance with forces of the Wild sits uneasily.
“That’s bogglin laughter,” No Head said.
“You like them?” the woman asked him. The targets were moving to a hundred twenty-five paces.
“Spent most o’ my life killin’ ’em,” No Head said. “But then,” he said, “I found they ain’t so bad.”
Forces elsewhere are under attack. A new, human, plague follows the horse plague. And a new, even more deadly threat appears in Galle.
The early plot focuses heavily on efforts to magically combat the (magic) plague. We kind of know that this won’t be the end of the series, but Cameron ratchets up the tension nonetheless, and named characters die. Meanwhile, Gabriel is pushing Mr. Smythe, their dragonic ally. He’s beginning to realize that Mr. Smythe hasn’t been entirely honest. He’s beginning to understand the scale of what’s going on. And he’s beginning to see that their interests may not remain aligned.
There is some incredible stuff, but it’s tough to say too much without spoiling the book. So I’ll take a minute and instead talk about how great the worldbuilding is. It’s easy to forget how much has been added writing reviews for each book in a series. But what Cameron has revealed to us is so cool and interesting and perfect that it deserves a little extra attention. In the world of The Traitor Son Cycle, the Europe-analogue isn’t bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, it’s bordered by “the Wild.” It’s the Wild that’s full of bogglins and irks and wyverns and serves as almost an antagonist itself at first. But while at first it resembles any number of desolate lands full of monsters in fantasy (although it is the opposite of desolate), we learn that it is something more as Cameron fleshes it out. The hordes of monsters all have their own interests and factions. The Canadian Cameron gives the Wild a distinctly Canadian feel, from its vast forests and bogs to the Amerindian-esque natives to the giant beavers.
Cameron adds to that in The Plague of Swords. The Sahara is reimagined as the consequence of the depredations of the Necromancer.
“‘What is on the other side of the desert?’ Gabriel asked.
The sultan looked south. ‘Once, there were other kingdoms,’ he said. ‘Now nothing comes out of the desert but the not-dead. Someday, perhaps…’”
We learn much more about the demi-godlike dragons and their role in the world. Yes, there are zombies, but with a new twist (and medieval zombies remain fresh to me in a way that modern zombies have long ceased to be). The countries and peoples in The Traitor Son Cycle map closely to the countries and peoples in real medieval Europe (and North Africa), but rather than as a crutch Cameron uses it as an opportunity to let his deep historical knowledge enrich the world and story.
Oh, and Gabriel’s griffon is now grown. And there are sea monsters. The fight scenes have always been a highlight of the series, and there have been a lot of them. Cameron mixes things up a little this book. The big fights are in the air or on the sea, not on land. Both are absolutely fantastic.
If The Plague of Swords suffers, it is from middle book-ism, just a bit. A lot of time is spent on infodumps for the new worldbuilding that we can expect to come to a head in the fifth and as I understand it final book in the series. A lot of time is spent positioning the various armies. A fair amount of action takes place off-screen. And the climax is a bit abrupt, especially after the extended climaxes we’ve been spoiled on. But these are all quibbles, and as the fourth book in a series The Plague of Swords should be judged in its role as such and as a part of the series as a whole. And the series remains my favorite and has me so fired up it is influencing my current reading choices.
4.5 of 5 Stars.