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Mirror, Mirror: the Other Side of the Coin

So about the time my 7th Sea: First Play Impressions post went live, I was being called out for being too much of a 7th Sea fan boy.  That perhaps my enthusiasm for the setting and previous edition was coloring my impression of the new edition.  And I think to myself, well what’s wrong with that?!  If you’ve read anything I’ve posted around here about gaming, it’s no secret that 7th Sea was sort of a seminal game experience for me.  One that sort of set the standard for the play experience I want in any game I play going forward.  And if that colors my expectations and enthusiasm for the 2nd edition, so what of it?  I mean, isn’t that the flip side of calling OSR fans out as nothing more than nostalgic?

But ok.  I’ll play along.  Because it’s not as though 7th Sea 2nd edition is perfect.  It wasn’t dictated by God Almighty as the Final Word in gaming.  You can’t even really compare it to 1st edition beyond the setting, because the game system is almost entirely new with only a cosmetic veneer to tie the two together.  So if you’re on the fence about 7th Sea 2nd edition, wondering if you really want to drop the money on the PDF, or the hardcover, or the leather bound collector’s edition, and you were foolish enough to come here then pay attention!  I’m going to tell you what I don’t like about the new edition.

Dracheneisen vs Hexenwerk

I think Hexenwerk is a poor replacement for Eisen’s national sorcery.  As a replacement for Zerstorung?  Sure!  Great!  But Dracheneisen was so iconic; it defined the look and character of Eisen.  Hexenwerk, as flavorful as it is, is very specialized and isn’t going to fit into every game.  Also, the core book makes it pretty clear that this is it.  There isn’t any more development space for Hexenwerk.  It’s done.  Now I get it that Eisen is now a dark fairy tale land of ghosts, ghouls, and vampires lurking in castles on high.  But you can have that and still have big bad Germans charging around in fancy armor.  There have been rumblings from folks looking to expand the utility of Hexenwerk by making it apply to all monsters, not just undead.  There are also folks working to put dracheneisen back in its rightful place as Eisen’s national sorcery.  Personally, I’m down for both.  And the Die Krieuzritter?  Magical blades forged of light and shadow brought to bear against monsters in the dark works just fine for me.

Faux Diversity

Gender equality and diversity!  These are two things that help define Théah and separate it from 17th century Europe.  Applause.  No, that’s a great thing really, and perfectly fitting with the tone of pre-reboot Théah.  But is it really more diverse?  Not really.  Right now, with just the core book, it’s very difficult to create an “exotic” hero from Ifri, Cathay, or the Crescent Empire without reskinning, homebrewing, or buying another sourcebook.  Is that a mark against the writers?  No.  They can’t include EVERYTHING.  But if you think about it, 1-2 pages of content would have been all you needed to be truly inclusive in terms of Ethnic diversity.  A handful of backgrounds, a handful of thumbnails.  Hell, Iskandar is right there on the map.  This isn’t so much a black mark as a missed opportunity.

Risks

First let me say, I love Action Scenes and Dramatic Sequences (Kinda. More on that later.). By comparisons, Risks still feel a bit forced.  Like an oval peg in a round hole.  I think part of the story in RPGs comes from the unexpected occurring, something that 7th Sea downplays in favor of player’s choosing the consequences of their actions.  I’m not sure a three-tiered success system wouldn’t have fit along side Action and Dramatic scenes more seamlessly (both of them have essentially three tiers of success: Approach, Improvised, and Unskilled.  I’m sure the developers playtested this and chose to go another way because…they liked it more.  But to me, standard Risks FEEL much different than Action and Dramatic Sequences.  They don’t feel like extensions of one another.  And there are limits to what you can express with Risks that I don’t like.  Time will tell on this one.

Raises vs Successes

This one goes hand in hand with the previous point.  Raises, rolling your dice pool and counting 10s, don’t feel quite as intuitive as rolling and counting successes (WoD, Witch Hunter).  Others with better math skills than me have pointed out that rolling and counting 6s and above gives you the same peak probability while widening the curve, thus making your pool of Raises a bit less predictable in the long term.  The method the developers went with feels like change for the sake of change, to help give the game its own identity.  I suppose it does that, and predictability does have some benefits, but I’m not sure the game as a whole wouldn’t be more accessible and just as exciting if they’d taken a more tired and traditional method.

FYI for those who worry about the speed of counting groups of 10s, don’t worry about that.  That isn’t an issue with the way the game handles dice rolling.

Rulings vs Rules

I can’t help but get the feeling that the rules of 7th Sea are a little half-baked.  By that I mean, immature, unseasoned, and untested.  In my previous post I said:

I think it’s safe to say the game succeeds at what it sets out to do.  Now that it’s in the wild, I’m really eager to see how far people are going to push it!

That cuts both ways.  I believe its a good start.  I think Action Sequences are there.  Dramatic Sequences are too open ended, like something they tried a few times and said, “Looks great!  Put em in!”  Risks?  Like I said: oval peg in a round hole.  Almost there, but not quite.  Over the next couple of months, as more and more people get their hands on the rules, beat them, bash them, and twist them like the mercurial things they are, I think we are going to see some maturity, some road weariness, beaten into the system.  We’re going to find out what really works and what doesn’t.

Pay close attention to this.  And please, do not read this as a negative.  I think when 7th Sea: the East rolls off the presses in 2+ years, we are going to be looking at a more mature game.  And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we are 4-5 years away from a revised edition (most likely an expanded or revised second printing, but still).  In that time, I think GMs are going to take the tools given to them in the core book and spin off about 2 or 3 new variants that will become so ubiquitous in play that it would be ridiculous not to include them as part of the core rules.

This isn’t because the rules are bad.  They’re simply immature.  Kinda like the LBB edition of Dungeons and Dragons vs. BECMI/AD&D. I think 7th Sea 2nd edition is a natural extension of where John Wick has been going in terms of game design, but none of those games ever slammed headfirst into the hands of 11,000 people.  I suspect years of hard playtesting, convention play, house ruling and home brewing is going to create an interesting beast, but it’s still a couple of years out from real maturity.

I’m okay with that.  I think John Wick would be okay with that assessment.  But not everyone will be.

The Toolbox

Ok, to be fair 1st edition 7th Sea was no hallmark in this department.  Aside from a few false starts (“Random” Encounters in the GM Screen adventure, The Powder Keg in the Villain’s Kit), the game never offered much in the way of tools for adventure building.  Hooks, sure.  Metaplot, yup.  But nuts and bolts so you could create your own unique vision of Théah?  Nope.  Nada.  Almost zero.  Oh, there were plenty of subsystems and mini-games that made 7th Sea a nice sandbox, but that’s not the same thing.  The GM who wandered off the page was on his own.

2nd edition is following the same playbook thus far.  There aren’t many tools for GMs in the new game.  There is no sample starting point, no example NPCs, no example monsters, no idea generators, no random encounter tables, no tools for creating a town or city.  The information is most big picture stuff (“this is what swashbuckling adventure is…”) and not little stuff (“here’s a list of elements to ratchet up the swashbuckling flavor of your adventure.”).  Is this even a valid critique of modern RPGs?  I think so.  Maybe all those Savage Worlds Adventure Generators have spoiled me.

That may all be coming in the sourcebooks.  John Wick has said as much that this edition will not have a metaplot.  So its quite possible that we’ll see some GM tools that focus on and highlight the individual locations in the setting.  In that sense, Pirate Nations, the first sourcebook (due out in November 2016), will be very telling.  And if JWP doesn’t see the value in providing tools for us hands-on sandbox worldbuilder GM types, maybe the promised Explorer’s Society marketplace will give us a venue for such things.

In Conclusion

I don’t want anyone coming away from my previous comments about 7th Sea 2nd edition thinking its all sunshine, roses, and kittens.  If you look at these critiques and think, “meh,” then by all means polish up those d10s and start dreaming up consequences.  If these give you pause, then track down a game on Roll20 or at convention and give it a spin before you start throwing money at it.  Or toss the new rules and just graft the old R/K system back on top of the new setting.  There’s no shame in that.  Even the crew at JWP is on record as saying they want folks to use the old system if the new one doesn’t work for them.  You know your tastes more than I do.

I’ve said the game is outside of my comfort zone, and it is.  For all the reasons I’ve listed above.  That doesn’t mean I don’t want to give it a try.  It also doesn’t mean I’m in it for the long haul (though that kickstarter sure did make that easier).  We had bucket loads of fun with the original edition, and I really hope this edition will deliver even more.  But the proof is in the pudding.  The first taste was nice, but that’s all it was.  Let’s see how things hold up over time.

 

Penny Dreadful: A Retrospective

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So it should be old news by now that after wrapping its third season, the curtain falls and the lights go up on Penny Dreadful.  There is something cool and liberating about these limited run series (limited run in that they tell a finite story rather than dragging things out for 6-7 seasons of 20 episodes each).

One of the things I’ve begun to experience with Walking Dead specifically but even Game of Thrones is the futility of investment.  When characters you care about die in the narrative, characters that you’ve become emotionally invested in, it shakes the narrative to its core.  Now, so far, Game of Thrones has done well to build on those deaths.  (Crap!  How do I do this without spoilers?) The executions, the assassinations, the atrocities, they still reverberate throughout the narrative.  Characters who died in the first novel/1st season are still impacting the story as it moves forward.  In that sense, you’re investment in the character isn’t completely lost.  Walking Dead is a different matter.  The writers may claim to be doing dramatic service to the narrative, promoting the idea that no one being safe raises the tension of each season.  Yes, I suppose it does.  But when a character dies on Walking Dead, their impact is gone after 2-3 episodes.  It becomes spectacle; a gimmick.  This is especially true of last season’s finale.  And its become old hat and annoying.  It’s like profanity.  If you curse like a sailor, those words have no impact.  But the guy who never curses swears once and EVERYONE is suddenly paying attention.  So when the body count in a show reaches a certain level, it doesn’t impact you in the same way anymore.  At some point, your perspective changes from who is going to die to who is going to live.  At that point, you stop investing in anything tangible about the narrative.

What was that Stalin said?  One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.  (At least a lot of people attribute that quote to him.)

Wait.  Stop with the Stalin quotes.  What does ANY of this have to do with Penny Dreadful?!

Sorry.  Let me put my soapbox away.

The point is that a short, defined narrative makes it easier to do the former and blunts the latter.  If you only have 10 episodes to tell your story, it’s easier to have a death or twist reverberate through the narrative longer.

Alright, so let’s get to Penny Dreadful.  First, some spoiler space for those waiting for the DVD collection to binge watch the season.  You folks just go ahead and bookmark this and come back later, k?

spoiler space…

Still with me?  Ok.

First up, I thought the season was incredible.  At least as good as last season.  I really applaud the way they handled Renfield and Dracula’s spawn.  When they revealed Dracula’s identity in episode 3, I wasn’t shocked, but I was disappointed for Vanessa Ives.  Ethan’s storyline wraps up nicely.  The Creature gets a ray of sunshine, only to have it tragically jerked out from under him.  Man, that guy can’t catch a break.  Doctor Jeckyll doesn’t really get to come into his own, but I liked the spin they put on him. Yes, it feels like by season’s end, everyone has turned a corner in character development.  Except…

Vanessa Ives.

Her fate is the lone, big, fat, red, nasty, pussy pimple on the whole season.  It isn’t bad enough to ruin the season for me, but it is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “really?!

Now I haven’t seen any of the first season aside from 1 and 1/2 episodes.  I saw Van Helsing get knifed by a street thug and Eva Green get her first solo episode where we wax poetic for an hour about how she betrayed her friend and spiraled into the grip of the devil.  Pure Victorian Melodrama.  Also, pure crap!  If that’s what the show was about, I didn’t need to watch it.  Goodbye.

I did give it a second chance with the Season 2 and, without Vanessa being the sole focus of the show, I came along for the ride.  That’s what you get for trying to jump in mid-season.

But it’s been my complaint about Vanessa all this time.  Her sense of self-loathing just rolls on like a Sherman tank ignoring any obstacle in its path.  And it’s damn irritating.  “Oh, poor me.  I did something bad once and now I am irredeemably evil.  No, don’t try to tell me otherwise.  Lalalala!  I’m not listening to you!

But you helped feed poor orphans in the London underground? Nope.  Sorry.  Evil.

But you were there when the creature needed a shoulder to cry on.  Evil.

You help send evil things back to hell on a regular basis.  You’d love to think that but…evil.

But isn’t forgiveness a tenant of Chri… Ok, would you stop already?  Don’t make me prove how evil I am.  I speak witch!

So after 8 episodes of gearing up to put the screws to Dracula, with everyone behind her, knowing that anything less is to doom mankind, one monologue by our sharp dressed villain and Vanessa “accepts herself” for the evil, self-loathing bitch that she is.  Really?!  

Now you can say that she did it for love, for acceptance, for passion.  But no.  Vanessa did it because at her core she is a selfish, self-loathing lemming whose courage and determination amount to exactly shit when the chips are down.

Which is to say her decision feels totally forced and out of character to me.

And since her decision could be construed as directly related to the death of the Creature’s son, I was terribly disappointed that Mr. Claire was not the one to rip her fool head off.  No, instead we get Ethan who proves once again that Vanessa left her spine in episode 7 somewhere.  Because honestly, if her sacrificing herself so evil couldn’t win was the right move, someone should have suggested that in Season 2.

And this twist of fate is doubly annoying because it robbed me (!!!!!) of a proper finale with the Dracula v the Wolf of God.  Yes, I wanted to see Ethan wolf out and throw down with Dracula.  I wanted them to paint the walls!  Who didn’t?!  But no, Vanessa is the reason we can’t have nice things.  And as the curtain falls on her death, she becomes the story of Penny Dreadful, and that cheapens the whole run.  Thanks a lot, John Logan.

Other than that, it was a great ride.

What did you think?

The Thousand Names: A Not-Review

1000namesFor about the past month, I’ve been reading Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names.  As of last Wednesday, I stopped.  I’ve given it the old college try, stuck with it through plague and pestilence, running solo as a parent while the wife was away at a conference, even visits from the in-laws.  In that time, I only managed 80 pages…in small bites.

I’m not really sure how this one failed me.  It was on my short list.  I really wanted to like it. It begins with a very cool Prologue that the first…tenth – geez, this really does sound unfair – of the novel just does not manage to capitalize on.

Perhaps my expectations were off.  I dug in hoping for a clash of cultures worthy of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan.  What I got was more like a British Military outpost in Afghanistan (circa 1839-42), if the military spoke more like American soldiers.  It just felt…off.  Compound that with the first hundred pages is all set-up.  The veterans at the garrison are demoralized.  A new Commander has been sent to kick them into shape and deal with the insurgent threat of a massive tribal army bent on kicking the invaders out.  That sounds great, doesn’t it?  And yet…The main characters we’re introduced to early on are mostly cliches: the woman masquerading as a man in the military, the soldier promoted up from down ranks who is more aware than the rest of the officers.  At least the new commander is receptive to his criticisms and recommendations.

So this one goes back to the library.  Sorry, but if I can’t find something to latch onto in 30 days that will keep me reading more than 3-4 pages at a stretch, the name on the book had better be Pynchon (or Delillo, I’m easy) or it’s going back.  I’m not even going to rate this one for obvious reasons.  If you’ve read the book and loved it…even liked it, please sing its praises in the comments section.  Maybe at some point I’ll give it another shot.

A Plunder of Souls: A Book Review

18490652A Plunder of Souls, D. B. Jackson’s third book in the Thieftaker series, doesn’t waste a lot of time kicking into high gear.  Like Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls revolves around Ethan Kaille, a sorcerer (or conjurer in the context of the series) with a checkered past doing his best to make ends meet and maintain his honor on the streets of British colonial Boston.  Back is the usual rogues’ gallery of foils and foes, including firebrand Sam Adams and the Wicked Sephira Pyrce.  A spectral threat looms over the city at large, all as we have come to expect from this series.

Where the previous two books have focused on mystery and the sinister machinations of an unknown villain, A Plunder of Souls dispenses with all that gives us a very front and center villain in Captain Nate Ramsey.  There isn’t much mystery to Ramsey’s motives, though the means marks another departure for the series.  Along with its villain, A Plunder of Souls really puts magic at the fore of the story.  This allows Jackson to really dig his teeth into the metaphyics that govern the universe of his novels, with promising results.

But back to the villainous Ramsey.  It is well understood that the hero of any story is nothing without a good villain.  In fact, in my experience, the villain is often more important than the character of the hero.  If we, the audience, don’t buy into the villain, don’t buy his or her motivations and complexities, than what follows is largely formulaic (especially in genre fiction).  Perhaps it his directness or his intensity, but Nate Ramsey quickly becomes one of those villains you love to hate.  I feel the need to applaud Jackson.  Given Ramsey’s motivations, it would have been very easy for the writer to paint him as overly sympathetic and justified.  Thankfully, Jackson avoided that awful knee-jerk tendency and gave Ramsey a suitably black heart.  In a stroke, his motivation also becomes one of his few weaknesses, and one that Kaille is loathe to employ regardless of the threat posed.

Perhaps it was because I read this book following the long slog that was Mark Chadbourne’s The Devil’s Looking Glass, but the pacing felt lightning quick and satisfactory.  Despite all the technobabble about how magic works, the book never feels like it slows long enough to loosen its grip.  Where in the previous two books, the main character has had time to pause, reflect and connect the dots, A Plunder of Souls has a real sense of urgency to it — as if in taking that time to tie everything together, the hero and reader alike will be steamrolled by unfolding events.  Jackson even manages to give us some real character growth in regards to Kaille, though the true measure of that will depend on the The Dead Man’s Reach, the next installment of the series.  You can bet that will be on my reading list for 2016.

Four and a half out of five stars.

The Devil’s Looking Glass: A Book Review

Last week I finally finished Mark Chadbourn’s The Devil’s Looking Glass, the third (and final) book in his Swords of Albion trilogy.  Set in mid-16th century Elizabethan England, the Swords of Albion tells the story of England’s “greatest spy,” Will Swyfte.  While the public at large reveres him as a hero against Spanish aggression, this is all an elaborate ruse put on by the crown as Swyfte and his cohorts battle against a much more sinister and dangerous foe: the Unseelie Court of the Fey.

I began reading the series at the recommendation of a friend.  The first two of the series were good, but fell a bit shy of the greatness they aspired too.  The Devil’s Looking Glass was no exception.  In fact, while the third installment was certainly the most action packed and “weird fantasy” of the series, it was also the hardest to finish.  It felt like it was full of speed bumps.

The story The Devil’s Looking Glass attempts to tell is quite ambitious.  London is suffering under a terrible enchanted siege by the Unseelie Court while Swyfte and his coterie of spies race to rescue Dr. John Dee, alchemist and sorcerer who alone holds the key to protecting England from the otherworldly predations of the fey.  Unfortunately, the doctor has fallen into madness under the influence of an enchanted mirror and has set off across the sea towards the New World.  Ultimately, our journey takes us across the Atlantic to the otherworldly den of the Unseelie Court in a mad gambit to defeat them once and for all and tie up as many loose ends as we can along the way.

Ambitious.  And therein lies the problem.  To do justice to any one of the stories it presents, The Devil’s Looking Glass would have to be nearly three times as long.  So the siege of London gets barely a chapter here or there, enough to tell the reader, “yeah, it’s bad.”  Most of those times, it’s to remind the reader of some terrible secret the minister of spies is keeping from Will Swyfte (that pretty much everyone else in power seems to be aware of, coincidentally) – a secret that could drive the man to murder those he cherishes most.  Without giving away too much, that terrible secret turns out to be pretty…uncomplicated, shall we say, as are the effects of its revelation.  But hey, we get a big sword fight with the King of the Unseelie Court.

Speaking of which, there is never any mention of a Seelie Court of the fey.  This was something I always found annoying about this whole series.

The novel really amps up the “weird” aspect of Will Swyfte’s world.  From the terrifying mermaids to the glassy Sargasso Sea, to the bizarre defenses of the Unseelie fortress, the novel dips much deeper into the fantasy aspect of the series, though it still remains rooted in alternative history.

In the previous books, there has always been some historical event to provide a foundation and a backdrop to the events in the novel (The Silver Skull, for instance, featured the battle against the Spanish Armada), giving them a sort of secret history vibe.  The Devil’s Looking Glass pitches all that for a race against time that doesn’t really feel that urgent.  Our heroes are chasing Dee knowing that England is under siege by a force they cannot hope to match, but the story doesn’t give it that much weight.  In fact, most of our heroes seem confident they will never return, giving their lives in the battle against the Unseelie or, in Will Swyfte’s case, uncovering darker, more personal mysteries.  And frankly, if the characters are going to care so little about what’s going on at home, why should we, the readers?

By denying the book a terrestrial foe, say France or Spain as in the previous books, the world feels much more narrowly defined and two dimensional.  Such a gross display of power by the Unseelie is not going to be answered by anyone else?  This makes the events of the novel feel shallow.  Again, if no one else is going to care…

The interpersonal conflicts feel a bit two dimensional too.  None of them really resolve themselves.  Sure, everyone has something of an “oh shit!” moment, but nothing that forces them to really reexamine themselves.  The closest we get to that is the Earl of Launceston, who in addition to being a noble and a spy is a compassionless serial killer.  But Launceston has known what he is since the first book.  Ultimately, the sun goes down on Will Swyfte and the other characters much as it rose, with only one question of importance being answered.  I don’t really expect hard-core character driven stories from genre fiction, but this time around Chadbourn doesn’t even seem to be trying.  He’s just things off his outline as he goes.

And the threat of the Unseelie court?  Likewise swept up with lukewarm satisfaction.  Consider, if the fey live in a dimension where a decade or a century passes for each of our years, exactly how long can you hope to occupy them with even the best of intrigues.  It’s a numbers game that doesn’t add up.

So there you have it.  While at once the most ambitious book of the series, The Devil’s Looking Glass falls farthest from satisfaction.  It never really delivers on its promise, and leaves this reader more satisfied with the effort of actually finishing the book than the conclusion of events.  Two out of five stars from me.

The Bastard Executioner, Second Impressions

The reviews are in.  The critics have spoken.

Bold!

Imaginative!

An Epic Journey!

Who are these people?!  Are they watching the same show I am?  What is their frame of reference? NBC sitcoms?

With a keen understanding that a lot of pilots are crap, I did eventually make my way through the muck that is the second episode of the Bastard Executioner.  Thankfully, the gore was toned down bit (and I mean A BIT, like the difference between 98° and 100° F).  Between severed limb man and cut off her nose to spite her face…yeah, no real indication that the series is anything but an excuse to slice off limbs with swords on TV.

I won’t bore any of you with the details or spoilers.  By now the series is four episodes in and people either like it or don’t.  My serial-genre programming time is a bit too precious these days to really bother with shows full of unlikeable characters (speaking of which, anyone catch that finale of Masters of Sex?).  As far as the Bastard Executioner goes, I’m having a hard enough time getting over the fact that the deceased evil baron’s wife is still in power.  Am I that ignorant of patriarchal medieval culture?  Maybe.  And if I am, I really can’t abide a show of this quality making me feel more dumb for watching.

So two episodes in we will be ending our “epic journey” with this “bold” and “imaginative” show and go off seeking other means of escapism.

I will leave you with a quote from Willa Paskin of The Slate:

The Bastard Executioner is monstrously fetid, a mound of gorgonzola stuffed into a dead catfish’s gullet, smoked in sulfur, doused with heavy cream and left to rot for weeks inside a port-o-potty in full sun.

Yes.  That does sum things up quite nicely.

BTW, did anyone notice Sleepy Hollow work up from the dead last week?  Fingers crossed that they can make a turn around from last season’s hit or miss storytelling.  I’ve seen the season premier and will have something to say about it soon.

Traitor’s Blade: A Book Review

It takes a lot for a book to make me laugh.  It’s probably the reason why I could never quite get into  Terry Prachett.  It’s not that I’m a humorless guy…at least, I don’t think I am.  I can appreciate satire as much as anyone.  It just doesn’t make me laugh.

Traitor’s Blade made me laugh.  A lot.  It was the first book I’ve read in a while now that I would characterize as a FUN read.  Traitor’s Blade is FUN.  It’s also gripping, tense, even a bit horrific, with careful drops and drabs of dark humor and grimdark fantasy.  Sebastien De Castell was really going for a Three Musketeers vibe when he wrote Traitor’s Blade and he succeeded…wildly.

I picked up Traitor’s Blade as a bit of a break from the cycle of pseudo-historical/fantasies I’ve been reading lately.  I needed to recharge the batteries and it showed up well recommended on Goodreads.

The book sets off as our hero, Falcio val Mond sits babysitting a pompous merchant prince along with his two companions, Kest and Brasti.  The three are Greatcoats, the famed company of the King’s magistrates, now disbanded and disgraced in the eyes of even the lowest serf.  When the king they served ran afoul of the Dukes, a sort of oligarchy nobility who constitute the real power in the lands of Tristia, the Greatcoats sworn to protect him and see that the King’s laws were enforced stepped aside and let the king be murdered by his own noble subjects.

Unlike Steven Brust’s Phoenix Guard, another novel that immerses itself in the style and flair of Dumas, Castell chooses to adopt a more contemporary, breezy writing style.

I will admit, early on I began to fear I had stumbled onto a Three Musketeers Meets The Black Company story early on, but the grimdark elements are refreshingly light in Traitor’s Blade.  Oh, the villains are ugly, vile things the reader will immediately hate – the shades of gray here are not reserved for the villains in true swashbuckling fashion.  But those horrific elements exist to uplift the heroes rather than drag them down into the muck (as in, say, FX’s Bastard Executioner series).

The interaction between the three principle characters is fantastic, with all of the drama and humor one expects from a tale of swashbuckling heroes.  Each has his own voice.  And while flawed, they aren’t crippled by their shortcomings.

The second act does get a bit lost in the weeds, as the novel takes a sudden turn as Falcio and a child he has sworn to protect dodge assassins and worse on the gritty streets of a city in the midst of its “Blood Week,” seven days when one’s only claim to title or property is what he or she can defend from their murderous neighbors.  Sort of a fantasy version of the Purge.  It works, and the act is tense and gripping, but it feels like a novella within the novel, giving it a bit of a disjointed structure that robs the whole of some satisfaction.  But only slightly.  It’s the equivalent of complaining about having to roll down your own windows in an old car.

Naturally, the conclusion of the novel sets the stage for the second book in the series.  But enough loose ends are tied up to make it satisfying in and of itself.  Trust me when I say that you’ll be reading the next book (or not, as the case may be) because you love the characters, not because you are waiting for some grand resolution to the troubles of Tristia.

So to sum up, fun, exciting, refreshing character-driven fantasy.  Five out of five stars.  Take a break from whatever else you are doing and read this book.  You’ll thank me later.