Books: The Red Knight

In Brief:  Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight blends traditional fantasy elements with strong historical fiction writing to great effect.  The title character leads his band of mercenary knights into the frontier to protect a vital outpost against the chaotic forces of the Wild.  As the forces of the Kingdom of Alban gather to confront the Wild, we meet a number of other interesting characters, Cameron’s system of magic, and a complex-without-being-excessive setting that includes complex politics, medieval economics, and philosophical-religious overtones.

Pros:  The sense of historical realism, even within this fictional setting rife with magic, wyverns, daemons, places this book in rare company.  Once you grow accustomed to Cameron’s method of switching between the main characters – not always to their p.o.v, but always focused on them – the method works extremely well.  Excellent characterization, pacing of the action and the world-building, and a very intriguing setting and magic system.

Cons:  None, really.  This is a very, very good book.  Maybe if you’re not into a Medieval Europe-style setting…  Maybe if you don’t find historical detail woven into a fantasy world fascinating…

Review:  Miles Cameron has a degree in Medieval History and an obvious love for historical reenactment.  He also has had a fine career writing historical fiction (as Christian Cameron), is an old school D&D guy, and likes to camp in the deep woods.  With swords.  This is my guy.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this before picking up The Red Knight; I’d just viewed a recommendation lauding the book for its blend of historical authenticity with fantasy elements.  It turns out, Cameron has written a number of historical fiction books and stories (as Christian Cameron), and his knowledge and familiarity with everything from armor to fortifications to the philosophical foundations of Christianity sets this novel apart.

The story centers on the title character, a young mercenary captain who’s recently returned from Galle to Alban and accepted a contract on the edge of the frontier in Lissen Carak.  This contract, paid by the Abbess of Lissen Carak – a location that’s important politically, economically, and spiritually to Alban –  calls for the Captain to investigate the recent death of her second-in-command as well as the destruction of some farms.  The Abbess suspects creatures of the Wild this close to the deep forest.

The Captain, although young and only recently elevated as leader of the company of knights, men-at-arms, and archers, specializes in this type of work.  We quickly learn that not only is he someone important’s bastard son, he’s a mage of considerable power and skill.  And sure enough, the company soon clashes with daemons, and boglins, and a wyvern – magic-imbued creatures of the Wild thought driven from the kingdom a generation earlier.

Cameron quickly establishes the neo-historical links of this world to our own, most obviously with references to Christianity and philosophers like Aristotle.  This thread links to the magical system as well, which features Wild magic (characterized as flowing from the Earth, colored green) and Hermetic magic (flowing from the sun, colored white).  The Church has linked itself with hermeticisim, and declared the Wild anathema – no surprise here – but as we learn, the means of magic isn’t nearly as important as what one does with it.

The creatures of the Wild have innate magical abilities, and humans like the Captain can draw power and cast phantasms (spells).  We learn much of this through the character of Harmodious, the King’s Wizard.  We also learn about Powers of the Wild – great magical creatures who can command or influence the lesser denizens.  One of these Powers is the adversary in this book:  Thorn.  Once a human wizard and Harmodious’s teacher and master, Thorn has now become and ent-like creature of immense power.  We learn much of the Wild’s claw and fang politics and the world’s magic through Thorn’s p.o.v chapters.

Thorn has targeted the Abbey of  Lissen Carak.  Not only is the Abbey important geographically and economically, it also sits upon ancient caverns and springs that have great magical power.  And so, with Thorn’s forces gathering, with the King of Alban alerted to the danger on his northern border, this book’s central external conflict shifts to the siege of the Abbey.  The Captain has trained his entire life for this kind of warfare, and his magic affords him an extra edge that gives his side a fighting chance.

Cameron introduces other p.o.v characters along the way.  In addition to Harmodious, we meet the Queen of Alban, a merchant adventurer, and the younger brother of the Drover (cattle baron) of the north.  P.o.v shifts to Thorn and a freed slave who joins the Sossag people of the wild (think American Indians) round out the narrative.  And within the tale, you come to appreciate not only the author’s deft hand at quick and effective characterization, but his strong command of the world and sense of historical detail.

The mounted knight was the ultimate force on the medieval battlefield, and you certainly get a sense of how and why from reading The Red Knight.  But how would knights fare against daemons and wyverns?  The author has spent some time considering these scenarios.  What happens when a powerful wizard takes the field?   How would a siege be different?  The battle scenes bear out with pleasing pace, detail and realism.

And as Cameron paints these scenes, he carefully builds relationships between lead characters.  The Captain, flawed and sometimes frightened, leans on some of his men for strength, builds them up when needed, and tries to hold his secrets close.  He interacts with people of all stations and classes as the siege progresses.  The Captain’s relationships with his men, the Abbess, Harmodious, and others are as much the heart of the story as the other more fantastic elements.  Some of the other p.o.v characters are afforded similar space to develop.  It all adds up to a great reading experience – one of my favorites in recent years.

Bottom Line:  This is one great fantasy novel, and I’m really looking forward to the next in the series, The Fell Sword.  If you have an interest in writers like George R. R. Martin, Steven Ericsson, Joe Abercrombie – you should give this book a read.

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