Rumor has it Miles Cameron, author of The Red Knight, is a pseudonym for historical fiction author Christian Cameron. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Orbit’s new novel has a ring of authenticity that fantasy often eschews, particularly with regards to combat and tactics. It’s also woefully unoriginal, layered with ideas and elements that I’ve seen dozens of times before. In the end, Cameron has written a novel that promises different, but fails to live up to it, instead delivering the same expected narrative that fantasy fans have ‘enjoyed’ for a generation.
Billed as the story of a dragon hunting mercenary, the cover of my advanced copy reads,
“Forget George and the Dragon. Forget fancy knights and daring deeds. Slaying dragons is a bloody business.”
I’m sure it is, except no one slays any dragons in Red Knight. There is a dragon, and it plays a significant role eventually, but there’s decidedly no slaying. None. Now wyverns? Those dudes get wrecked.
Putting aside the narrative for a moment, Cameron’s world is an odd one. Fantasy relies heavily on setting, and the one in Red Knight is hard to put a finger on. References abound to Jesus and real world philosophers, and several places exist that could have groundings on Earth. Unlike, for example, Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy, Cameron doesn’t seem to actually be writing something post-apocalyptic, instead it’s a second world fantasy that lacks the verve to create something completely new. I found it an odd choice, and I wonder if things will become more illuminated in future novels.
Back to the narrative, it centers around a young man known only as the Red Knight. I say centers around, but that should be considered an inexact word choice since the novel contains what feels like twenty different PoVs, most of which are not one-offs. The Red Knight and his band of merry mercenaries are hired to hunt down the perpetrator who murdered a nun in cold blood. A little wizardry and some medieval forensic analysis, reveal that killer as a beast of the Wild, the force of nature that the people in Cameron’s world fear will eradicate human civilization.
Picking up the tome, Red Knight feels awful thick for a murder mystery monster hunting romp. And it’s not. It flys off those rails pretty quick, devolving into a full on ‘fantasy standard’ battle royale between the forces of the Wild and the forces of man.
That’s a shame. The early going gave the impression of a Seven Samurai style Western, with a mercenary band called in to help a town fend off an incursion from a force only interested in destruction. It even plays off some of the most important themes in Westerns — man versus nature and the idea of suborning traditional cultures in the name of progress.
Some of the best sections of the entire novel come when Cameron writes from the point of view of the tribes of humans living within the Wild, men and women who’ve chosen to live outside the oppressive human kingdoms. Compared to the preeminent 2012 fantasy western, Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, Red Knight handles these ‘savages’ far better, portraying them as a chosen way of life with motivations and intelligence. Not as the unthinking other. It’s unfortunate then that by novels end it all feels tossed aside in favor of a tree wizard (literally, shaped like a tree) bent on destroying the blight that is humanity.
None of that is aided by the aforementioned number of points of view. Cameron is forced to switch constantly and many fall into what I can only call the Quentyn Martell trap, by which I mean they don’t feel terribly relevant to the plot. I’m sure they set up the long game for a five book series, but at the expense of the here and now — namely, the readability of the first book. By the halfway mark I was thoroughly exhausted and questionably interested in what was happening.
The one item in that kept me reading, voraciously even, was the identify of the mysterious Vermillion Chevalier (sic). Hinted at throughout that he is someone of import, the narrative promised a big reveal once it came to light. While his identity is revealed, Cameron does not lay the foundation that would make it revelatory for his reader. Instead, we’re told that it’s significant, but never shown why, or how.
My frustrations with The Red Knight are legion, but it doesn’t diminish many of the set pieces within it. The combat scenes are easily some of the best I’ve ever read in fantasy, particularly with regard to medieval fighting styles and tactics. Never before has the power of a fully armored horse and rider been represented as fearsomely as it is by Miles Cameron. Likewise, his magic system, based on hermeticism, feels like something different, an intriguing blending of religious and arcane.
I would have preferred to let my recommendation carry on these facts alone, but I can’t. The novel as a whole is not a success bogged down as it is by its own weight. I suspect it will find a large readership, particularly those that crave the overly indulgent narratives of fantasy’s yesteryear, but it isn’t me.
Released this past October in the United Kingdom by Gollancz, The Red Knight is due out in the United States on January 22 from Orbit.