Books to be Scene: Miles Cameron's THE RED KNIGHT
The dozen soldiers nearest him looked; every head turned, each wearing matching expressions of fear.Hey, you're back!
The captain rubbed the pointed beard at his chin, shaking off the water.
"Jacques?" he asked his valet.
"M'lord?" he asked.
"How did the Wild make it here?" the captain asked.
Here, wealth and power held the Wild at bay. Should have held the wild at bay.
"The usual way," Jacques said quietly. "Some fool must have invited them in."
The captain chuckled. "Well," he said, giving his valet a crooked smile, "I don't suppose they'd call us if they didn't have a problem. And we need the work."
"It ripped them apart," Michael said.
"Apart," Michael repeated, licking his lips. His eyes were elsewhere. "It ate her."
Indeed I am. Ready to get back to telling people about things they're supposed to like. Awww yeah.
I don't know that's quite what you're meant to be -
Relax! I kid, I kid.
Seriously, though, if you believe what the internet would have you believe, critics are supposed to hate everything that's popular and think we know better than you. We can't just sit back and enjoy something fun, and there's even less chance of that if everyone else already likes it and we turned up late to the party. Show us a film, a book, a TV show half the first world is going nuts over and we'll dig up something similar (but just different enough) that you've never heard of. Then we'll say your opinions are bad and you should feel bad, and you should like this thing we like instead. We're just bitter, cynical robots acting all contrary because otherwise we'd simply shrivel up and die.
Seriously, it's a little unfortunate that, well - let's just say I can think of a really easy way to summarise why Miles Cameron's The Red Knight was one of my favourite books last year, and why I'd kill to see it on as big a screen as possible. But some of you are probably going to roll your eyes just a tad. Ready? Game of Thrones, but better - look, you're doing it already! Okay, I admit, some of the most attention I got for anything I've written for ScreenAnarchy was an article explicitly telling people don't read Book A, read Books B, C and D instead, but this isn't like that. Honest.
So, what, these two books are actually completely different?
Well, no. Superficially, at least, you could easily make The Red Knight sound very similar. This is a sprawling fantasy setting, roughly analogous to medieval Europe, where the individual kingdoms alternate between getting together to hit their enemies with large, pointed bits of metal until they stop moving, and then slapping each other on the back while agreeing they're all awesome. There's a clergy centred around the worship of unity and perfect goodness, and an alliance of hideous, inhuman things watching them all from without, just waiting for the right moment to storm in and slaughter everyone.
The Red Knight is a lot more intimate than A Game of Thrones, though (if we're comparing the books). Martin went big right from the off, showing you the face of his Other in the opening chapter, and making it very clear this was going to be about sweeping changes coming to a world that was almost entirely unprepared for them. Cameron's book is almost a murder mystery, at least to start with. The captain of a small but ruthless band of mercenaries has been hired to investigate some disappearances around a fortified abbey in a far-flung region of the kingdom.
Who exactly dunnit, then?
That's the hook. It turns out it was the Wild (Cameron's demons) what done it, but this wasn't some random attack. Someone terrifically powerful has raised an army from the Wild, united different races, monsters and magical horrors with the aim of taking down the abbey. And they've got help, a traitor on the inside who's telling them when and where to strike. Not only is the threat suddenly a lot bigger than the captain realised, he discovers the abbey is far more significant, too (who'd have thought?), both to humankind and the Wild. He and his tiny force are faced with a desperate battle to hold the place while the armies of the King make their way to lift the siege.
Now Cameron is a historical recreationist, the kind of guy who can write with authority about what it feels like to put on and fight in plate armour, say, because he gets medieval in countless different ways for real. Frequently. But he's hardly the first writer to go above and beyond in the course of his research: where he rises above the competition is a focus on raw, often unlovely human nature that's hugely entertaining on multiple levels. Much as I loved the first book of The Mongoliad (Neal Stephenson and friends' crowd-sourced historical fantasy epic) the plot nose-dived into people spouting dry, airless facts and figures for much of its second volume. Cameron's cast, on the other hand, offer a staggeringly diverse range of individual subplots and perspectives on the action.
So it's not just swords and sorcery?
By no means. The abbess and the captain bicker over individual points of theology, and their debate about following a higher calling informs how the captain acts when he sends his company into battle to risk their lives. He falls for a beautiful, mysterious novice, and has to balance the sense there's something deeper, more complex about the bond they're developing against the brutal day-to-day routine his men are used to (violent death, rape, pillage, the usual). Martin's world has depth, obviously, but I always thought he drifted to slightly cartoon extremes, and the only real epiphany most of his characters got was realising just how badly half the world or more wanted to fuck them over.
Not that Cameron doesn't do grim. While there's very little sex in The Red Knight (cue sound of an HBO executive putting his credit card away) there is some truly horrific violence, with several of the non-human races being seriously messy eaters. Many of the big set-pieces come across not unlike Kingdom of Heaven as directed by George Romero. Yet it's used for more than just shock value. Again, while Martin knows a good set piece - Red Wedding, anyone? - I felt there wasn't much impact sometimes beyond Christ, life sucks.
And the period detail, the big speeches and the monster mashing all just click, then?
The book's not flawless by any means, but when Cameron brings all the pieces of his narrative together, the academic rigour, the intellectual gratification, the gore and the whupass, it can be absolutely jaw-dropping. The ebb and flow of some of the battle scenes is captivating; hordes of attackers swarming up the walls of the abbey, dropping out of the sky, a tiny band of men battling against near-impossible odds, knowing if they go down it all but guarantees them a hideous death. Action sequences are delivered with tightly plotted choreography, near pitch-perfect pacing and seemingly effortless flair, like Matthew Reilly with a personality (oh, I went there).
And when the smoke clears, and people reassess the situation in light of what just happened, it's more than a gang of popcorn stereotypes licking their wounds, or angry people getting angrier. Cameron's cast challenge themselves, try to understand why they do what they do and the epiphanies they come to are often so subtle you hardly notice: even one character admitting how old he is can cast a great chunk of the book in a whole new light. And then typically another action sequence kicks off while they're still trying to digest what they just learnt. There are long stretches of The Red Knight where it feels like all Blackwater, all the time, and the sheer nail-biting tension is almost too much to bear.
So why doesn't this guy have studio suits queueing up to bid for the rights?
Well, to be honest I'll be (pleasantly) surprised if anyone's about to buy up the rights any time soon. We all know Game of Thrones was a success in large part because HBO threw money at it (though yes, okay, the tits didn't hurt) and even then it was something of a stretch. There are parts of The Red Knight which blatantly call for scene after scene of Weta-quality effects, people in both armies trading blasts of arcane power, dropping meteors on each other, wyverns, trolls and more besides, and half the time there's not really anything else to cut away to in order to spare some poor accountant from having a seizure. And it's long. Like, really long. You couldn't trim it down to a film without seriously hobbling it (even three hours would be too few, I'd say).
But Christ, it'd be something if an enterprising producer wanted to back an epic fantasy that understood what subtlety and restraint was, as well as how to push the envelope. Game of Thrones' success is well-deserved, but for all his intellect and experience Martin's books were always in large part about giving us bread and circuses, long before HBO decided to sex them up. The Red Knight doesn't (yet) have Martin's scope and scale, but it's far more elegant, almost poetic (despite the sheer savagery on display) where Game of Thrones is a rowdy drinking song. It's just an idle fancy, wanting to see it brought to life - hell, the next volume's still a long way off - but it'd be more than just bawdy entertainment: it'd be beautiful.
The Red Knight: Book 1 of the Traitor Son cycle, by Miles Cameron, is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook editions.
Images taken from the US edition cover art, off the official website, and the UK edition cover art, from the artist's DeviantArt page.