Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Traitor God - Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God is a debut fantasy from Cameron Johnston. It’s a cynical, dark, bloody tale, with flashes of hope, and some terrifying and spectacular magic, in a vivid, well realised world.

Speaking of the world: it’s a wonderfully strange, terrifying place.  Magic courses through the blood of a social elite, one which struggles to empathise with or indeed even think about the majority of the populace. The magicians have lifespans extended by their magic, and their powers extend from incinerating everything in a wide radius to control of water, or even superhuman strength and endurance. Those who can control magic are rulers, whose length of life leads them to slough off emotional attachment over time. As a consequence, they tend to be ruthless, pragmatic, and, broadly speaking, not overly nice people. It doesn’t help that using magic is addictive and comes with side-effects, driving practitioners further away from their humanity every time they exercise it.

These are the oligarchs of a failing empire, ensconced in power and privilege, and either unaffected by or unwilling to embrace a changing world. Still, their personal power is considerable, and if their empire no longer shapes the world, its capital is a thriving metropolis, seething with commerce and vice. The book isn’t shy about exploring the themes of power and accountability, examining the kind of decisions which can be made when absolute power is assured, and the compromises of judgment necessary to reach that level – and whether or not those compromises are justified. Anyway, this is a world of demons and creeping, corrosive magic, which is willing to provide great power in return for a slow and inevitable cost. There’s a lot being unpacked here – a city in decay, an empire indecline, an oligarchy in thrall to their own legend. There’s external factors too – murderous others, and hints of a geopolitical situation which is very far from under control.
This is a tightly written, believable world, one which will make you sit up and take notice. It’s not pretty, by any means, but it’ll seep off the page and into your pores.

Into this rather turbulent space steps Edrin Walker. Walker is a man with demons, both figuratively and rather more physically. Walker isn’t what one would generally think of as a hero. He’s quick witted, sure, but also bitter. This tends to manifest as scathing sarcasm and a penchant for running his mouth when he shouldn’t. The words are razors, and you can feel an edge lurking in everything Edrin says. That said, it’s hard not to feel for a man who speaks the unpalatable truth to power. It helps that despite (or perhaps because of) this tendency to talk big, Walker is also ruthless and pragmatic – willing to leave acquaintances behind if need be, or to threaten, to maim, to kill. That said, this bubbling spring of violence is channelled in service to his goals. Walker also realises his own flaws. Understanding his lack of compassion, knowing that magic has broken something inside of him, he struggles to hold on to his humanity, while being appalled at the actions and careless disdain of greater monsters than he. Walker is complicated. Walker is more than a little broken. Walker is scarred, emotionally  and physically, by his past – and  despite that, if he’s not trying to do the right thing, exactly, he’s at least not actively trying to do the wrong thing.

In this effort Walker is assisted by friends who are at least as strange as he is. From all walks of life, they seem to share a certain no-nonsense attitude to problem solving, and a more positive view of the protagonist than he has of himself. In his friendships we see facets of Walker less evident in the man we have before us – a more compassionate, friendlier individual (albeit one with a penchant for acerbic remarks), perhaps one with less to lose. This is Walker’s book, but the ensemble around him is built of well-rounded, believable characters, acting on their own agenda’s. I would have liked to see more of some of them, to be sure; for example, Walker’s oldest friend and her daughter make great foils for our lead, but seem to be straining at the seams of their scenes, trying to take over the stage. That said, they have a surfeit of competence and agency, and tightly written, believable and complex characterisation – so if I want to see more, it’s only a good thing.

The plot? Well, it’s a story of blood, betrayal and despair. It’s also a mystery, as Walker tries to piece together exactly why so many people are trying to kill him. I mean, some of it is because he has a habit of smarting off to authority, but not all of it. There’s a strong strand of noir running through the narrative, and thematically some strong beats on love, friendship and loss which hit like a punch in the gut. It’s emotionally riveting, complex work, a story that ties its character’s reconstruction to the slow revelation of the mysteries at the heart of the plot. It’s…also got a lot of demons, mad wizards, thoroughly explosive magic, and smart-arse remarks. There’s banter, the occasional stabbing, chases, dramatic betrayals…really, something for everyone. It snappy, tautly written prose kept me turning pages until far too late in the night.

 It’s a cracking debut, and if you want a well done dose of fantasy-noir, this one’s for you.

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