Summary: How do you kill a Saint?
Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are about to find out, because someone has figured out a way to do it and they’ve started with a friend.
The Dukes were already looking for ways out of their agreement to put Aline on the throne, but with the Saints turning up dead, rumours are spreading that the Gods themselves oppose her ascension. Now churches are looking to protect themselves by bringing back the military orders of religious soldiers, assassins, and (especially) Inquisitors – a move that could turn the country into a theocracy. The only way Falcio can put a stop to it is by finding the murderer. He has only one clue: a terrifying iron mask which makes the Saints vulnerable by driving them mad. But even if he can find the killer, he’ll still have to face him in battle.
And that may be a duel that no swordsman, no matter how skilled, can hope to win.
Review: Tristia is falling even more into chaos, and the weight of fixing it lies on the shoulders on Falcio and his companions. Aline is so young to rule, and yet she must stand up and be the queen few people want her to be. Falcio himself has terrible flashbacks to his time being tortured, yet can’t leave things alone and is constantly pushing himself past his limits in the attempt to improve his land on the orders of a dead king. Ethalia’s role in the world changes dramatically, much to her consternation and confusion. Kest’s ability to use swords is waning. Brasti is, as ever, Brasti. And as if that all wasn’t enough, now along comes a new threat in the form of monotheistic zealots who feel no pain and are inhumanly strong, seeking to destroy the Saints and to establish a theocracy in Tristia instead.
Myself, I love reading books that involve twists on religion, especially when those twists show what can happen when religion gets out of hand. Bonus points for throwing in the debate over whether deities were there before people prayed to them, or whether people prayed to them so they were created (like a far more metaphysical “chicken or egg” issue). That de Castell does just those things in Saint’s Blood makes me very inclined to like it, and I’d probably do so whether or not I’d enjoyed the first two books in the series beforehand.
As with the previous books, I absolutely adore the dialogue, especially between Falcio, Brasti, and Kest. The way they banter and play off each other is a real treat to read, and it makes me grin a lot. True, some of the jokes get a little old since they’re played so often (in particular, the long-running gag about Brasti not being able to find the right word for what he wants to express), but even that’s not overdone to the point where all the humour is lost. But the interplay between those three characters is superb, and does so much to really drive home the idea that they’re comfortable around each other and have worked together for a long time. They have the banter of friends, of long-time colleagues, and it’s great to read.
De Castell has great skill with writing a complex story that slowly reveals itself piece by piece. As opposed to some books I’ve read, which have an equally complex and multilayered story as Saint’s Blood, the book isn’t spent drowning the reader in unfathomable acts which only make sense once the final reveal has happened. There’s nothing wrong with that method of storytelling per se, and it can make for a great reread so that you can see events unfold with the end knowledge in mind, but I vastly prefer books where I figure things out only a few pages before the characters themselves do. It feels a lot like I’m on the journey with them, invested as much as they are, and they’re trying to puzzle things out in the same way that I am. It keeps me invested in the progression, the story as both a whole and a series of steps, and the way the plot with God’s Needles was uncovered was just wonderful. It takes skill to peel back the layers little by little without revealing too much, and still while having it all make sense.
It’s worth taking time to examine more of Falcio’s character here, because he’s evolved a fair bit from the opening scenes of Traitor’s Blade. He still carries much of his naivete with him, clinging to ideals that aren’t necessarily attainable no matter how hard he tries, and on some level that’s commendable, because it means he’s not willing to easily compromise the things he holds dear. On the other hand, it was very nice to see people try to hammer home that the past isn’t always appropriate to the present, that things need to change going forward instead of returning to what was behind, and that sometimes what you’re holding onto are idealized versions that you’ve built up in your mind, the epitome of everything you want that thing to be instead of a reflection of reality. Falcio’s process of slowly absorbing this lesson was both heartbreaking and gratifying; it meant letting go of some aspects of the past that he loved and held close to himself, but it was also an awakening for him, seeing what could be done with reality instead of uncompromising ideals that nobody can live up to.
That’s a big theme throughout Saint’s Blood, not surprisingly. Learning to let go. Not just with Falcio, but with most of the main cast. Kest had to let go of who he was to find who he had become. Valiana had to let go of her stifling protection and embrace madness in order to overcome it and find her strength. Ethalia had to let go of her assumptions about her Sainthood in order to properly embody it.
The ending was just beautiful, and I was on the edge of my seat while reading it. The old drops away to reveal the new, whatever it’s worth. The future of Tristia isn’t assured, and it’s not pretty, but so much has changed and all anyone can do is try to move forward, even if it means leaving things behind and learning to live with how they’ and the people around them have changed. I could practically hear the triumphant soundtrack as the Greatcoats find their new roles and new purpose as they take down the newly-created god and the Blacksmith. The way de Castell writes it all, from Falcio’s perspective but still not revealing everything that Falcio knows until it would have great dramatic effect, adds a lot to the scene, and it all came together in something that made me want to cheer for the heroes as they fought their greatest battle.
Between that and the exploration of religious zealotry and the lengths to which people will go to achieve their goals (misguided or otherwise), Saint’s Blood remains the fun epic adventure that the previous books in the series were. I’m fairly hooked on Falcio’s adventures and misadventures, I adore the dialogue, and the humour in the book is top notch. This is the kind of series that takes the epic adventures that children want and scales it up for adults, and it’s rewarding and unfailingly entertaining. De Castell is a master of adventure, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next!
(Received for review from the publisher.)