It seems strange to be reading about a very contagious plague sweeping across the civilised world at a time when one is doing just that in the real world.
‘A Plague Of Swords’ is the fourth book in what is sub-titled ‘The Traitor Son Cycle’. Seeing what has gone before, there is an impression that the titles are chosen because they have a ring to them. Gabriel Muriens is ‘The Red Knight’ of the first volume. He is supposed to be the ‘traitor son’ but his behaviour as a mercenary captain is impeccable as a knight in an age of chivalry. The only person who might consider him a traitor is his mother because he didn’t do what she wanted and turned his back on the family.
The plague in this volume, regarded literally, is of magical origin and has been spread by the enemies of mankind. The first plague killed a large number of horses but this attacks humans and starts with a cough. It gets into the lungs and begins to decompose the body from the inside. For these people, though, there is a simple cure found almost by accident.
Up until now, most of the action has taken place in the country of Albin. Now it switches to Terra Antica, which is based on the continent of Europe. Most of the names are corruptions of familiar places. Geography now gets a trifle confusing. Kronmir, a spy, is sent to Galle to find out what the situation is. He sails south and then east through narrow straights into the Inner Sea to reach Venike and is attacked by sea monsters. This gives the appearance of passage through what we know as the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean to Venice. The problem is that that the maps provided at the beginning of the volume show the Inner Sea to the west of Albin, just over the mountains and where Ash, one of the adversaries, has a stronghold.
In ‘A Plague Of Swords’, Gabriel is fighting a battle of three fronts against different enemies, usually a disaster in reality. The main thrust of the book is in Galle, against the Necromancer who has allied himself with the Odine, who can turn people into ‘not-dead’ to form an army of automatons. The Odine are apparently very ancient, though this is the first time we have come across them, and from another dimension. In the meantime, Gabriel has been declared emperor. Slightly anomalous as the emperor seems to govern only the city of Liviapolis and its immediate surroundings. All the other regions only have a king.
The problem with this series is that after the publication of the first volume, issues like the character names, overtly Christian religion and geography are set in stone or at least in print and Cameron has to work with them. There are improvements. In earlier volumes, there was a lot of rapid scene changes scattered across the landscape adding to the readers’ confusion. Here, there are much longer passages and fewer focal characters. What does cause confusion, though, is the same character being referred to by different names in the same paragraph.
Any author needs to be able to surprise the reader and keep the storyline developing. There is a degree of this here but, in order to set up the denouement in the final volume, the addition into the plot of gates to other dimensions and an alignment of the stars, more likely planets, to get the army chasing back across the continent in a race against time seems like a hefty plot convenience. One thing Cameron does which is laudable is that he is not shy of disposing of characters that have been intrinsic to the action and may have become favourites to some followers. It has to be remembered that this is a series with a very high body count and Gabriel is fighting a war.
While there will be followers of the series who enjoy ‘GrimDark’ novels, it would be a mistake to begin the series here. To understand what is going on, it needs to be read from the beginning. If you don’t like heaps of corpses with your magic there are plenty of other fantasy novels around.
(pub: Gollancz, 2016. 464 page enlarged paperback. Price: £18.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-20886-5)