All Dark Lords are evil, aren’t they?
Wraith Knight is the second novel by C.T. Phipps that I’ve read after the excellent Lucifer’s Star. That book and this seem to echo each other in several ways. I went away feeling that Wraith Knight was the superior tale and that is saying something. The general theme of both novels is an exploration as good and evil as colours on a continuum instead of as diametrically opposed. This is Grimdark Fantasy and I say that as a compliment. It’s at the morally complex end of the subgenre instead of the crass, “blood, guts and genitals” end.
This is a satisfying mix of original ideas and classic elements of fantasy worlds. Formor and Sidhe instead of orcs and elves. Knights on dragonback. Powerful mages and magic weapons galore. It’s a world that is recovering from the defeat of the King Below (more Morgoth than Sauron to my mind but that’s splitting hairs). Technology and magic have kept pace with social progress but those changes conceal a society that’s rotten to its core. Slavery abolished in name, but little real change for the masses. A religion of the Light that is prejudiced against those who have innate abilities with the wrong kind of magic, even though that magic is not in itself evil or good. The fantasy tropes are subverted with only a few remaining barely intact as anchor points for the reader. I found it an excellent mix of ideas old and new. I can’t help but reference Lucifer’s Star here. There is a strong overlap in the sense of the worlds that are built extending beyond what we’re shown in the books. It’s clearly one of this author’s strengths: creating worlds that feel as if they operate outside the direct needs of the story.
Phipps excels at characters. They live, they breathe, and they act in unpredictable but consistent ways. There is very little use of caricatures, those flat characters that are just window dressing. Regina, Serah, Creature, Jassa and even minor characters like Creature’s daughter and her husband are well rounded. I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of the Trickster. Managing to make the disembodied voice of the god of evil, the so called King Below, nuanced and at times sympathetic is sheer class. Jacob Riverson, our wraith knight main character, is a complex fellow. He reminds me a bit of that Meatloaf song, I’d do anything for love… Riverson would do anything to win, to drive back the darkness but just like the song … he won’t do that. What is it he won’t do? Well, commendably, he won’t kill children. That this is an issue for the forces of Light at any point gives you an idea of the moral ambiguity at work in the story. Then of course, there’s the whole ‘Oh, no I’ve been serving the Dark Lord for the last few centuries’ angle to him as a character. This could easily go wrong in one of two ways. Either a character who spends all his time whining about the past or one who doesn’t care enough about it. Here, we’re kept on that knife edge balance point between too much soul searching and not enough. To the author’s credit, Jacob never descends off that edge — there’s reflection and more importantly, a change in the behaviour and the goals of him as a character as he comes to terms with what he’s done, both before becoming a tool of evil and during that time.
Characterisation – absolutely top notch!
As always, hard to talk about without giving too much away. What I’ll say though is this: it’s often trotted out that there are only a few possible plots and that it’s the execution of them that differs. This feels like the author is trying to break out from those tramlines. The plot is complex, but that’s a good thing. It’s not the tired old fantasy cliché of kill the big foozle using the magic acorn held by some wool-footed short people who are tougher than they look. Or rescue the [insert vulnerable McGuffin] from said big foozle. That much is obvious. It’s more about finding meaning and a place in the world. Jacob waking up to what he is, and what he needs to be.
I think that the plot suffers a little in the sense that this is a character driven story rather than plot driven. I think that is an excellent thing but it does mean that the plot isn’t quite as awesome as the characterisation and the setting. One thing to note, the story is complete in itself but clearly leaves the way open for a sequel/sequels. Again an example of this author getting the balance right.
This is, as with Lucifer’s Star, solid and smooth. Dialogue reminds me at times of Joss Whedon’s style in things like Firefly. There are pop culture references but these are woven in skilfully without being jarring. For example, the reference to Terry Pratchett as a playwright in the setting Terence Pritchard is amusing but doesn’t take the reader out of immersion. On the other hand, the prose is nothing ground-breaking. It won’t carry you away with its beauty but it’s good enough to channel you into the world. This is not meant in anyway as a criticism — the prose is easily the equal of someone like James Patterson or George RR Martin. In fact, it’s better than GRRM’s.
Very Good writing without being in the artistic top bracket. For comparison: GRRM would get 8/10, Joe Abercrombie would get 9.25.
Doing some quick arithmetic shows that I thought very highly indeed of this novel. It’s a rating which it thoroughly deserves and higher than most others I’ve given. Best bit of the whole book? Getting to the last page and seeing that there’s a sequel called Wraith Lord. You can be sure I’ll be reading it and, if you read Wraith Knight, I’m pretty sure you’ll be rejoicing at the thought of a sequel too!
Giving 5 stars on Goodreads and Amazon