Format: oversized paperback, first edition, 2018
Reading Time: about 8 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: Edrin Walker returns home after ten years to avenge the death of his best friend, only to find that it is part of a much bigger mystery, one that threatens the city and the only person he still cares about.
I received The Traitor God with great anticipation, bumping other books out of the queue so that I could read it immediately. As you know, I had interviewed Cameron Johnston several months ago and pre-ordered the book from Amazon. I was a little nervous, as I enjoyed the interview but was hoping the book was good enough that I wouldn’t have to leave an awkward, negative review. So on to that review, which as usual is chock-full of spoilers, but first I’ll spotlight a couple of other reviews from cyberspace.
Adele from Adele is Reading reviewed an ARC copy, and has this to say: “What drew me towards The Traitor Gods was initially the cover; I mean, it’s beautifully illustrated, and it’s so interesting. There’s so much to look at! The second thing that drew me towards this novel was the title: The Traitor God. The title alone sparks my imagination…The Traitor God was certainly interesting, and at 15% into the novel there was already so much that had happened. I was almost overwhelmed honestly. If I hadn’t told myself that I was reading this book to the end, then I might have had trouble finishing this book. The only thing that I didn’t particularly enjoy was that a lot of history is thrown into this novel. So much so that the dialogue between characters was disrupted so that we could learn some history. What I particularly didn’t like about this was in some instances, this history telling would end up taking chapters sometimes…Something that I truly enjoyed was the fact that even though Walker’s story is one of revenge, I felt like Walker’s story is also one of redemption.”
T. Eric Bakutis at Fantasy Hive, which is where I first learned of The Traitor God, offers up this take: “I enjoyed watching the book’s larger mystery unfold while author Cameron Johnston also unspooled the smaller mysteries of Walker’s past, friends, allies, and murderous telepathic dagger. Despite the wonders of Setharis – towering golem war machines who slumber in the middle of the city, powerful magi who can bend the elements and flesh itself, and Setharis’s four remaining gods (you know, the gods Walker didn’t kill) – life in Walker’s world is not easy, even for magi. This is no idealized fantasy world, and life for the average sap living in the mass of slums beneath the magi’s glittering towers is just dreck. Johnston shows us very clearly what life was like before modern sanitation and antibiotics, and even with magic (which is reserved for the elite) his world felt grounded and believable…By putting us inside Walker’s head and telling us his story, Johnston kept me interested in Walker’s quest for vengeance and understanding, and even made me like the bastard. As Johnston revealed more of Walker’s wretched childhood, his attempts to do actual good, and his many failures, Walker evolved from an interesting jerk focused on revenge to an understandably damaged man who constantly pushes down his own survival instincts to protect those he holds dear, fighting when he wants to run…Though Walker is the only POV character in the book, there are a number of colorful and interesting characters throughout. Walker’s best friend, Charra, is a dangerous and loyal ally who constantly gives Walker good-natured grief about everything, and Eva, the mage knight Walker flirts with despite the fact that she’d certainly kill him if she learned who he was, is an absolute terror in a fight. Other favorite characters included Charra’s rather deadly daughter, Layla, and Shadea, an utterly implacable badass…If you enjoy clever gray characters, gritty but interesting worlds, and creepy magic, this book is for you.”
Finally, Chris Meadows at Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews opines: “It’s a cynical, dark, bloody tale, with flashes of hope, and some terrifying and spectacular magic, in a vivid, well realised world…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…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…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…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…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…Its 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.”
I agree with The Fantasy Hive and Chris’s reviews, but not so much with Adele’s – I loved the history aspect, but I could see how she would be overwhelmed. I found the opening of the story a bit confusing, as we are dropped into the middle of a battle with Viking-like invaders and Johnston explains how his magic system works. This continues as Walker escapes the battle and heads home after a rough sea voyage, where things become a bit more clear. The magic system begins to make sense when including sniffers, who have the ability to detect magic, but early on we are shown that such magic is flawed, as Walker is easily able to fool the sniffer. We also get a feel for how poor the city’s slums are, and the totalitarian-like response from the ruling mageocracy when their rules are violated. There is a clear feeling of “us vs. them” between these two classes, which gives the setting Johnston has built an authentic ring. In fact, the world-building, primarily as it relates to this single city, is fantastic. Setharis is very much a living, breathing city, from the poor slums to the higher levels of the city where the privileged live, the the towers where mages have ascended to become gods, the giant golem-like war engine statues, the bridges spanning a foul river, to the boneyards beneath the city – it’s all fully imagined and makes sense. At times I pined for a map of the city, but I was able to follow along well enough as the story develops. I enjoyed the revelations into the history of the Setharii Empire, the impact of which is still felt thousands of years later by the inhabitants of Setharis, and the remnants of history have a major impact on the story. And the Cthulu influence that Johnston mentioned in my interview with him is definitely born out by the nasty monsters his imagination unleashes. As a Cthulu fan myself, I loved it.
Walker is a wonderful protagonist. He is deeply flawed: snarky, angry, anti-social, and capable of dominating the thoughts of others – he is definitely an anti-hero. This is no farm boy/magic sword story trope (although he does have a Stormbringer-type dagger right out of an Elric story). Yet he has positive characteristics too: driven and determined, loyal to friends, caring about what happens to the poorer citizens of Setharis, and a reluctance to use his power despite its allure for abuse. Perhaps most importantly, Walker grows and changes by the end of the story, which is important for the main character to do. In some ways he reminds me of Zelazny’s Corwin from the Amber series, but Walker is entirely a unique individual born from Johnston’s imagination. The supporting characters are very fleshed out, surprisingly even the dead Lynas, who we get to see in a few flashbacks, as well as characters who talk about him…as Walker’s source of motivation and also his conscience, the ghost of Lynas is ever present in the story. I liked Charra, Shadea, and Cillian, with perhaps my favorite supporting character being Eva: part flirtatious scholar, part mage-knight badass. I think Charra’s daughter is a little underdeveloped, but I’m sure that will change in the next book if Johnston is given the opportunity.
The pacing is amazing – I don’t think I’ve ever read another book crammed full of chases, epic battles, intrigue, and a plot that careens from one action sequence to another while barely allowing Walker to catch his breath. As the story progresses, the stakes get higher, more secrets are revealed, and I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. It is a thrill ride from beginning to end, although there is a sequence where the plot bogs down a little as the characters wait around before they can activate a war machine. Still, Johnston has created a pace have never read before, which constantly commanded my attention and had me absolutely riveted throughout the book. He will be hard pressed to top it in a sequel.
And as for the plot? Well, that’s pretty good. What initially starts out as a murder mystery turns into a plot to destroy the city and rebuild from the ashes, due to a god-like power and the injustice of the class system of Setharis. While at first it seems hard to believe that Walker would align himself with the class system he despises, it is the cost – the death of thousands of the poor people he associates himself with – that is too high for him to bear, which forces him to oppose this plan. Not to mention that the Skinner – a serial murderer – killed Lynas, so Walker has to track the killer down, too. And then there is Walker’s foggy memory of killing a god. As this incident becomes more clear, it explains much about how Walker’s abilities have become much stronger, how he can heal more quickly and take so much more punishment. There was a moment in the story when I thought Walker might actually be the god he had killed with a memory block in place, which would have been a pretty cool twist. That, however, would make Walker a little too powerful and probably less empathetic, so I was happy to be wrong on that account. The only quibble I had was that it was very easy to guess what had happened to Walker’s former mentor Byzant, who had disappeared after Walker left town 10 years previously. This book is described as “grimdark”, so for those who are appalled by descriptions of gore and profuse swearing, they will not like this aspect. It didn’t bother me at all.
The Traitor God is a story that Johnston has been working on for years and it shows. The dedication to his craft, along with the feedback from his writer’s support group, has delivered an extraordinary tale. I was blown away by Johnston’s debut offering, which is polished enough that you would think this is his fourth or fifth book written. I hope Johnston is able to deliver a sequel, because I will be all over it. As I mentioned above, I think he will have a hard time “dialing up the monsters and magic to 11”, as he proclaimed in our interview, but I can’t wait to see him try!