The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

cameron johnston the traitor god review eric lewisPay no attention to that pretty sword and those conspicuously placed maps

 

Cam’s debut novel is a flesh-rending fantasy where magic itself is the darkest villain, with a tone that will feel familiar to fans of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora.

No time is wasted orienting the reader with the setup: a mage on the run for some great unremembered crime returns to his old stomping grounds to investigate and avenge the death of a dear friend. More fantasies these days are mixing in other genres like crime/mystery, and in this case the combination is like a gin and tonic. As he nears the truth, our cynical anti-hero must enlist the help of old friends to defeat old enemies and new ones while his memories as a godslayer return and the meaning of the true threat unfolds.

The story is told in first person from the main character’s POV. This means there’s a lot less dialogue and a lot more exposition than I’d personally prefer, with some moral philosophizing at awkward moments. There’s also some inconsistency in the character, as one moment he sacrifices others to save himself without a second thought, then later agonizes over using his powers and endangering innocents. A redemption arc is fine, but flip-flopping at the whim of plot threatens to remove agency from the character.

The magic system, on the other hand, is probably the most consistent and well-developed I’ve ever read. Not only the dangerous powers themselves, but also their limitations weigh on the characters like wet woolen blankets, preventing easy solutions to problems. Magic is an addictive drug, both figuratively and literally, and wielding it is like picking up a sword by the sharp end to strike the enemy. Magic hurts. The protagonist must restrict and conceal his abilities not only to prevent succumbing to its seductive power but to evade otherworldly demons always hunting him. This constantly hints at a terrible potential that the reader will salivate to see unleashed.

The story takes place almost entirely within a large city, and the extreme wealth and power disparities are rendered viscerally such that you can almost smell the stench of the slums, and want to thrash the high and mighty for their pride. I did have a hard time keeping the geography of the city straight, and I wish a map had been included.

The pacing in this book never lets up. Many novels drag in the middle, getting bogged down in advancing the plot after the setting and characters are established. Not here–the action constantly accelerates, though it becomes bloated near the ending chapters. Long conversations in the middle of a battle are usually not a good idea.

There are Lovecraftian undertones, overtones and sidetones all throughout the book that give the most putrid parts of the city a claustrophobic feel, and lend apocalyptic battles a sense of horror at the great mawing, indifferent multiverse our characters inhabit. Some parts of the ending are rather predictable, hitting classic fantasy beats the astute reader will be watching for. But there’s also a sense of hurtling helplessly towards some epic, inevitable conclusion.

The Traitor God is a complete story, even though it’s the first of two volumes. I’m left with a sense of rest and pause at the end, and the next will have to deliver on expectations of much higher stakes than the first. I can’t wait to delve into the second installment, God of Broken Things.

 

Cameron Johnston’s website: CameronJohnston.net

 

Pairs well with: Deschutes Brewery Obsidian Stout

 

I did my PhD in the Pacific Northwest, and there are some things about it I still miss. I’ve long been a fan of Deschutes Brewery’s Black Butte Porter, and the Obsidian Stout kicks it up a notch, but just a notch. The 55 IBUs are balanced nicely with the malty chocolate and espresso goodness typical of a stout, but the combination isn’t syrupy or cloying as some stouts can get. There are a lot of craft beers these days that you can only stand one of before falling into a diabetic coma. This ain’t one of ’em. At 6.5% abv the full flavor punches well above it’s weight but won’t knock you out on a lazy weekend afternoon. Dark and complex, it matches the book well.

 

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