Book Review: The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

Traitor GodFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2018

Pages:  426

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 disagree with Adele’s on one point – I loved the history aspect…but I could see how she would be overwhelmed. I found the opening of the story a bit confusing myself, 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 Cthulhu influence that Johnston mentioned in my interview with him is definitely born out by the nasty monsters his imagination unleashes. As a Cthulhu 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 story using a pace have never experienced 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!

Interview with Cameron Johnston

In my last post I indicated that I was going to be doing an interview with Cameron Johnston, author of the forthcoming novel The Traitor God. Little did I know that Cameron was already hard at work on my questions and banged out his answers in one day! It’s his first ever author interview, and it’s my first interview as well, so there’s bound to be some rookie questions on my part…fortunately Cameron was up for the challenge. I tried to keep my questions that were in reference to The Traitor God spoiler-free, but there’s a couple of tiny tidbits in the interview due to the inherent sneakiness of my subconscious…

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BACKGROUND

Cameron Johnston is a Scottish writer of speculative fiction (usually a mix of fantasy and horror) and a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle since 2010.

He is also a swordsman, gamer, enthusiast of archaeology and history, a fine ale drinker, builder of LEGO, a cat-slave, and owns far too many books to fit on his shelves.

His short stories have appeared in publications such as Niteblade Magazine, The Lovecraft eZine, and Swords and Sorcery Magazine to name a few, and his debut novel The Traitor God is forthcoming. A full list of Cameron’s writings can be found on his website: www.cameronjohnston.net.

With the background out of the way, let’s jump into the interview. My questions are in bold and are represented by “HA” (Hippogriff’s Aerie) while Cameron’s answers appear as “CJ”…

 

INTERVIEW

HA: Over at Fantasy Faction you mention 10 overlooked novels that “made you”. You also mention some of the big names like Lord of the Rings, Dune, Dragonlance, Elric, that are obvious influences as well. Which 2-3 authors would you say are your biggest influences?

CJ: All-time biggest influence is a tricky beast to define but we’ll start fairly early on as that influenced my future taste as a reader. If I have to only pick three I will go for H.P. Lovecraft for the sense of cosmic horror and ancient mystery, Michael Moorcock for the epic swords and sorcery multiverse and chaos vs order of the eternal champion books, and the duo of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman for Dragonlance, which got me into fantasy in a BIG way.

 

HA: You signed with an agent for The Traitor God. On your website you describe receiving the acceptance letter. Did you receive any rejection letters? Do you think you would have considered self-publishing had no offers been forthcoming?

CJ: You would struggle to find any trade published author that hasn’t been on the receiving end of rejections and ploughed on through it. Before I began The Traitor God I was working on short stories to help improve my writing skills before I began to write another novel (my third!), and when you have a few short pieces out and about at various markets and get three rejections all on the same day, well, that is not fun! With agents and novels the game has been upped and the stakes higher so rejections hurt more and acceptances are ecstatic – I received some nibbles of interest and some form rejections from agents before I was lucky enough to join forces with Amanda Rutter of Red Sofa Literary, which worked out very well indeed for me. I would definitely have considered self-publishing if The Traitor God had not been snapped up by a publisher. I believed in it too much to just trunk it in an abandoned folder somewhere, but thankfully with the help of my agent and Angry Robot’s fine editors it is being published stronger than sleeker than ever before.

 

HA: Did you write a synopsis and attach it to your manuscript? If so, how hard was it to crunch your book down to a paragraph or two?

CJ: Synopses are awkward and brutal and every writer I know hates condensing their novel to a brief and flavourless outline of plot points. I took the approach of ‘If they like the start then they just want to get a brief overview of where the rest is going to make sure it’s not going entirely crazy’ so I tried not to sweat the small stuff and give them that overview. Of course, as soon as you send it you start fretting over it all again.

 

HA: On your website you talk about some of the ancient places that you’ve visited, like Arran’s Giant’s Graves and the Machrie Moor stone circles. Do you find these mystical places making their way into your stories or influencing your writing? Besides Scottish/Celtic history, are there other areas and times in Earth’s history that you are particularly drawn to?

Giant 2

CJ: The sense of age and mystery that cloaks such ancient places has always called to me and absolutely influences my writing. I’ve even written a short story published in The Lovecraft eZine around standing stones and ancient churches and why they were set in a particular location. I only wish I could visit the distant past to find out how ancient sites were really used! Other areas of history that I am especially interested in are: anything prehistoric from the Stone Age right through to the Iron Age, ancient Egypt and Roman times. I am also interested in UK history of the Dark Ages through medieval – all those lovely castles, swords and armour!

 

HA: You are a self-admitted huge fan of archaeology and history. In the world that appears in The Traitor God, did you come up with a history first, or did it develop as you wrote the story? Are the monsters in the story familiar (based on Earth mythology/Dungeons & Dragons), or did you create your own unique creatures?

CJ: I’m of the school of worldbuilding where character and story develop first, and the world coalesces around that story. I had a core idea of the world but the details filled themselves in as I went along through the first few drafts. The monsters in The Traitor God are largely nothing like you would see in D&D-esque fantasy, with most being something far more disturbing that have more in common with the creations of H.P. Lovecraft than with elves and orcs.

 

HA: The Fantasy Hive calls your novel a “grimdark epic”. Is grimdark a rebellion against stories about farm boys with magic swords coming of age, a reflection of our current society, or something more? What is the appeal of grimdark to you?

CJ: Grimdark is a response to the old days of epic fantasy, of goody-goody farm boys with magic swords but it’s also more than that, and just one part of an ongoing trend of real-world cynicism. It’s partly a desire for more realism and authenticity in the same way that modern war films don’t shy away from depicting the brutality and atrocity of war or the moral implications of darker deeds by all involved. Many of the video nasty’s of the 1980’s seem tame and cheesy compared to modern horror films, and the Internet is everywhere now – the knowledge must flow, which over time has meant the restraints of censorship have been relaxed for much of the media. We’ve all seen and heard too much about the real world and its scandals to go back to those more innocent days of pure-hearted heroics – at least not all the time. It’s always good to escape all the grimness of reality and read unashamedly fun fiction too, one of the reasons why I think a book like Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames has done so well (despite it being generally awesome anyway).

 

HA: The cover of The Traitor God was done by Jan Weßbecher and is absolutely gorgeous. How did that come about?

Traitor God

CJ: Angry Robot asked me what sort of cover I fancied, and agreed with me that it should be artwork as opposed to one of those photo-realistic hooded man style covers. Then I was asked for a range of images that inspired me, and to write a brief of what the main character looks like, his gear, descriptions of the city of Setharis and that kind of thing. Jan wove that into a series of rough sketches that Angry Robot and I looked at and chose the parts we liked best: the bridge detail, the angle of view, character pose, and the style of the titanic *coughcough* ‘statue’ in the background. Then Jan fleshed out all the amazing detail work. I was thrilled to be so involved in the process.

 

HA: One of my favorite posts that your wrote on your site is called “A Writer’s Thick Skin”. It nicely sums up the anxieties of being a writer, as well as the need for constructive criticism to make you a better writer. Did you have any family and/or friends read and critique The Traitor God? If so where there things you thought you nailed that they didn’t like? Pleasant surprises? How long have you been working on this story?

CJ: I am a member of an amazing and long-running (30+ years!) writer’s group here in Scotland, that has enjoyed having some wonderful trade published writers such as Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Gary Gibson, William King, and Michael Cobley through its doors. Plenty of professional advice has been on hand, and critiques are completely but constructively honest and focused on building a writer up to be better instead of tearing them down. Which is exactly what you need if you really want to improve. One thing I have learned is that writers are really not the best judges of their own stories and some things I thought were fairly bad turned out to be well received. The first draft of The Traitor God began as a short story called ‘Head Games’ in late 2012 and the first rough draft of the novel took a year. Multiple drafts and rewrites later, it went out to agents in late 2015, then following edits, to publishers mid-2017. Quite a journey!

 

HA: On my site you state “if only The Traitor God does well enough to get a book 2 & 3, then the magic and monsters will be turned up to 12″. Do you already have an arc/plot for the next two books? Does that mean there will be unanswered questions in The Traitor God that will leave the reader anxiously awaiting resolution in a sequel?

CJ: I originally wrote The Traitor God with the intention of it being part one of a trilogy, as we fantasy writers tend to want to write. However, one thing that I feel passionate about is that any book should also have a satisfying ending, to stand alone to a great extent. And so The Traitor God does! I really hate it when a good book just…stops, and an entirely unresolved story is left dangling – that is just not fun for readers. The Traitor God has a satisfying ending to the events of this book but also leaves open the possibility for more mayhem. If enough wonderful readers buy it, like it, and want to explore more of the character, the world and its dark history, and its macabre magic then I hope to have the opportunity to write it for them.

 

HA: You mention an interest in swords/fencing on your site. Can you expand on this?

CJ: Well-crafted swords are things of intrinsic beauty to my eyes, the careful work of master smiths. Take a look at the exquisite work of the Raven Armoury, Castle Keep, or Albion Swords and I defy anybody to say I’m wrong. On that note: I’ll drop in a cheeky ‘buy my book’ to readers here – I’d love to be able to afford one of those works of art some day! A guy can dream. I also dabble in Historical European Martial Arts, which tries to reconstruct martial weapon arts from surviving original texts, historical records, and practical reconstruction. Also, what’s fantasy without those magic swords we love so very much? (shush, don’t mention question 6!)

 

HA: Bonus Question: I know you’re a Harryhausen fan like I am. Favorite Harryhausen movie and favorite Harryhausen creature? For me it’s Clash of the Titans for sheer epic-ness, and the six armed, sword-wielding statue of Kali in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (full disclosure: I have the vinyl figure from X-Plus sitting on my bookshelf because it’s so awesome!)

CJ: I’ll have to go with Jason and the Argonauts I think. As for creatures, Kali is an amazing foe that I’d put on par with Medusa from Clash of the Titans, but for me the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts win out. The slow advance and then that mad charge and the fight, all perfect.

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Many thanks to Cameron Johnston for graciously accepting my interview request and taking the time to answer my questions in an entertaining manner. Look for The Traitor God to be released on June 5th in the U.S. and Canada (June 7th in the UK), or better yet, pre-order it now from his publisher, Angry Robot Books; it’s also available for pre-order from Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.