Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Saint's Blood - Sebastien De Castell

Saint’s Blood is the third in Sebastien De Castell’s Greatcoats series. The series has always combined razor sharp, witty dialogue with an intriguing setting and characters with emotional honesty of a surprising heft. The previous book was one of my standouts from last year, so my expectations from this follow up were high. Not to give anything away, Saint’s Blood meets those expectations, then stabs them in the throat with a rapier after kicking them in the knees, before giving a witty one-liner and wandering off.

We’re back with Falcio Val Mond and his merry band of Greatcoats in this instalment. Falcio, having survived some esoterically impressive torture earlier, feels like a more fragile figure. His anger, always bubbling away beneath the surface, is starting to break through. He carries some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which are handled tactfully, but unflinchingly in the narrative. This Falcio is one more damaged than before. But the complexities of the character remain in place – he’s influenced, but not defined by his experiences. He also begins to reach out emotionally, though in a more protected way than before. Falcio, a man who occasionally takes outrageous risks, approaches his emotions with the savoir faire of a kitten approaching an IED.

De Castell crafts Falcio’s character with precision and skill, leaving us in no doubt that this is a flawed, possibly broken man, driven by anger and a sense of what is right. Falcio’s flaws help make him more human, and his pains leave the reader heartsick in their intensity, and in the emotional truths which they convey.  They’re backed up by a similar level of veracity in the supporting cast. Kest, after a strong performance in preceding texts, is shown here worn down, and looking for a new role to play, after fulfilling his last goals. Where Falcio is angry, Kest feels lost, a man searching for a new truth, a new purpose. Brasti…well, he’s still the sad clown, a man fighting back against the harsh realities of the world with a wry witticism and a sharp arrowhead.  The interactions between this central trio are, in part, defined by their relationships with others; it’s great to see more of the women in the Greatcoats, taking on key roles and not taking any crap from our dynamic trio. It would be even better to see more of them, of course ; really though, I just want to spend more time with all of these people, dynamically, elegantly, realistically constructed as they are.

The world – well, it’s falling apart at the seams again.  Where the previous text looked at the role of the Knights, the secular arm of power, here the key theme is faith, and the role of the church. There’s an excellent portrayal of different types of faith here – from Falcio’s firm grasp on the law, through a martial leader with a belief in something larger, to the more concrete grip of prelates on the majority of the populace, and their efforts to shape faith in preferred directions. It’s a nuanced exploration of a complex issue, sitting behind and informing the decisions of the characters. It’s also part of this world that we’ve not really seen before – looking at the intricacies of spirituality in a universe where Saints, minor and major, exist and can be spoken to.

This larger theme, played out in the characters background, also informs the plot. No spoilers, as ever, but the stakes are high, and De Castell blends a crackling, action packed set of events with an exploration of humanity with great skill. He’s also got an exceptional ear for dialogue – the back and forth between our heroes is always a delight, and it helps that in between being witty, they have time to be genuine, and aren’t afraid to be complicated people too. This is a book with interesting things to say, and it says them through intriguing characters, and a plot which kept me hanging on to every single word.

Is it worth reading? If you come to it without reading the first two, it will suffer, I think – it needs the context of the series to really work at full strength. As the third of a series, though, it’s a powerful piece of narrative, recommended without reservation.

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