The Red Knight by Miles Cameron.
Published by Gollancz, October 2012 (Review copy received.)
Review by Mark Yon
OK. The Red Knight is a book that holds its Epic Fantasy credentials high. Though generally its plot is at first glance nothing really new, there’s a lot in it to like, for it has hidden depths. And it does what it purports to very well.
In terms of similarity, well, the plot is rather generic, it must be said. We have Knights, Kings, Queens, mages and monsters. If you read Epic Fantasy, all the usual tropes are there, and at this point I can see that some might want to walk away, put the book down and go and get something else. But before you set it aside, it is worth saying that it is a book that it pays to stay the course with.
In essence we have a siege tale that starts simply but becomes increasingly more epic, both in scale and complexity. The book begins with The Red Knight setting out with his company of men and women to help people in need. A convent has been attacked and the people inside killed by something monstrous.
Such events are not that unusual. The people of Alba are in a constant battle between themselves and the Wild, where daemons, irks, boglins, wyverns, giants and other horrible creatures live. The humans are often prone to skirmishes between the borders of their land and the Wild.
However, on examining this event, it seems that this was not a single attack but the precursor to others. The dead Abbess seems to have been betrayed whilst trying to save her nunnery. The Red Knight, and his many and varied collection of mercenary soldiers, then ride to protect the nuns at Lissen Carak. They are hired, for twenty-eight florins each a month, to defend the convent, as further attacks seem imminent.
It soon becomes clear that the deaths are part of a sustained invasion into England Alba by the Wild, led by Thorn, a traitor now working for the Wild. A decisive attack is planned, partly due to a power struggle amongst the different creatures of the Wild but also in revenge for the human expansion into their territory, destroying the environment and killing the Wild’s inhabitants. The convent and the town at Lissen Carak seem to be the focus of a magical power and so are a major prize for the Wild should they take it over.
Away from the front line, the King of Alba and his young Queen Desiderata hear about the conflict and the King sets off to the combat zone. Desiderata is left at first to deal with the complex politics of court whilst the King has to lead an army into battle and deal with the addition to his army of French Galle knights, led by Jean deVrailly. Saying they are to help the King, they are a constant source of friction between the King’s men and the local people they are supposedly there to help.
The Kings Mage, Harmodius, a practitioner of Hermetic magic, sees that there are major changes in the world taking place, and finds himself under attack, having to travel in secret in order to help resolve the issue for the King. He finds himself by accident defending a wagon train and then Lissen Carak against the Wild, with The Red Knight and his soldiers trying to hold out until the King can arrive.
Whilst at first appearing to be little more than a medieval siege novel, The Red Knight soon wins the reader over with its broad range of characters and detailed battles. It is very medieval in its origin, and is filled with an impressive level of detail in both its fighting strategies and weaponry. Cameron has clearly done his homework here, managing to integrate the military vernacular into the plot without the means of huge information dumps.
The result is that the world-building is recognisable, yet different. Whilst some may feel that the world is perhaps *too* medieval, I thoroughly enjoyed the complex divisions, the conflicts and the different perspectives that such a society creates.
In terms of characters there is an impressive range, from the King and his knights to the lower class mercenaries, and from those in court to those living in the Wild. Fantasy readers usually enjoy such a complicated setup, as such a technique does give that impression of a broad canvas. However, some may find the stylistic conceit used here of moving from one character’s perspective to another, often after a mere paragraph, can be a challenge. I must admit that initially with each change it did take me a while sometimes to remember who each character was, what they were doing, and where a character had got to and why. It was a little annoying to find that sometimes once I had then remembered all of this, I was whisked off to another character to start the process again, although given time the characters become recognisable.
This is a book where the reader has to commit to the long haul. With such a large book it is perhaps not surprising that in places, in the middle, the detail does slow the pace, and I suspect some readers used to having everything explained clearly will find this irritating.
However, persistence will win out. This is a book that repays patience and focus. It is not a simple read, and all the better for it. The battle scenes, when they do happen, are very good. They are fast, very graphic and often exciting. The Red Knight really gives the impression that the foe, are quite formidable and it is to the writer’s credit that such battles, of which there are many, are not easily won by the victor on either side. The last hundred pages or so in particular show that the build-up to the denouement is worth it.
In summary, I had high hopes for this one: I wasn’t disappointed. The Red Knight is literate, intelligent and well thought out. After finishing the book I found myself thinking that The Red Knight is a step back towards more traditional High Fantasy, whilst retaining the depth and intricacy of the best of Epic Fantasy. Not as sweary as, say, Joe Abercrombie’s (nor as bleak) but definitely more adult than, say, David Eddings or Raymond Feist, and almost as richly complex as Steven Erikson’s Malazan.
Most of all, I expect the inevitable George RR Martin comparisons will no doubt be in abundance, and it must be said that I think many readers looking for a George-type fix would enjoy this one. Whilst the language isn’t always quite as choice as George’s (although there is some!), the breadth of the tale, the engaging characters and the supreme world-building should all find favour. It’s a difficult thing to balance, but I’m pleased that Cameron has (on the whole) managed to juggle many intricate elements at the same time.
This is a hefty book. It is one to lose yourself in, and overall I very much enjoyed the experience. It’s not often these days I find myself wanting to find time to continue reading – with this one, I did, to the point where, at the end, I was sad to see this group go. It’s a pleasingly complex and greatly satisfying novel, all the more surprising for being a debut Fantasy novel (though clearly not his first novel.)
Mark Yon, October/November 2012