Gollancz, p/b, £14.99
Reviewed by Alex Bardy (Twitter: @mangozoid)
Having heard so much about it, Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight was one of the many books I was most looking forward to reading as 2013 began, and it’s with a heavy heart that I say this ultimately proved a little disappointing, not helped by the frightening number of typos and grammatical errors that seem to abound throughout. I have it on good authority that Gollancz are aware of this problem and trying to fix it for future editions, but anyway…
The problem with any fantasy book of this size — and make no bones about it, this is proper hefty doorstop material — is the ability of the author to hold and retain reader interest, and while I respect the fact that this is the start of what may prove to be a truly epic saga, I struggled through the first 300 pages due to multiple POV switching, often and incessantly mid-chapter (which themselves run to 45-50 pages — a personal bugbear of mine). Had I not been reviewing this title, I probably would have considered giving up long before this, but I struggled on — unperturbed by bad copy editing — and was very glad I did because the second half of the book speeds along, detailing one of the most authentically epic siege wars I think I’ve ever read in my life, and went a very long way towards salvaging this entire volume for me.
In essence, this is the story of The Red Knight, an estranged noble who leads a company of top-notch male and female mercenaries, and takes on the job of protecting a convent from a seemingly random attack by the Wild — a rag-tag collection of creatures mostly comprised of ‘evil’ races: boglins, irks, trolls/golems, daemons, and wyverns. There are humans in the Wild as well: ostracised folk who have opted for a life outside of conventional society. Other than the boglins (who die by the thousands), it’s fair to note that at no point does the author treat the Wild as ‘dumb’— they all have their own motivations and/or desires, and for the most part are happy to be led by Thorn, a tree-like beast of a man turned traitor — some are even lining up to usurp Thorn himself, but that’s a different sub-plot altogether.
Anyway, as things progress, the author piles on the story, and gradually the stakes get ratcheted up until we are ultimately embroiled in an epic struggle between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, with the convent standing almost dead centre of this almighty war — and while this is the very core of the story, I’d be doing a disservice to the author if I didn’t credit him with some brilliant world-building and a magic system that’s defined loosely enough for the reader to grasp without overwhelming us with detail. The author is a historian and member of a re-enactment society with a specialist interest in ancient weapons and armour, so it probably comes as no surprise that this does come through clearly in the level of detail he is able to bring to the tale, and certainly made the colossal battles spring off the page regardless of where he picks up the action.
I’ve deliberately been vague regards the plot details, but suffice to say this is epic fantasy on a grand scale, and there are many multiple plot-threads that are well worth savouring on their own, and some huge well-realised personalities to follow. Apart from the Red Knight himself, one of his cohorts is Bad Tom, a particularly strong character throughout the narrative. Ditto the arrogant French knight, Jean de Vrailly — a character who doesn’t feature quite as much, but who you can grow to hate or love within a single sentence.
In summary, I think there are a lot of strong points to this, and if you’re a fan of epic fantasy and massive battles (including but not limited to wyverns practising aerial bombardment techniques and massive hulking trebuchets) then there’s plenty here to love, as well as a number of great characters and private conflicts to lose yourself in. That all said, it proved a real struggle to make it through the first half of the book without losing the thread, and I would say to any author that if it takes me 300 pages to find my way into a story then it’s like as not going to be a story I’m unlikely to finish. In this instance, I was glad I did so and it did prove worth it, but it was only my own sense of duty that got me through that first half…