The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston
After a decade traveling through lice-infested towns to evade magical demon cats, Edrin Walker, professional alcohol imbiber, loaded dice-roller, and self-proclaimed peoplemancer, knows three things.
- He almost certainly killed a god ten years ago, but doesn’t remember doing so.
- So long as he never returns to Setharis, home of the magi order he abandoned after he killed said god, the only two people he loves will remain safe, and
- He can enslave people’s minds with his magic, and if he’s not careful, using that power will turn him into an insane tyrant who will then enslave the world … which is why all the other magi want to kill him.
So on balance, Walker’s already having a fairly awful day when he telepathically experiences his best childhood friend being captured by some hooded bloodmage jerkbag, then immediately skinned alive.
With his “gift-bonded” brother Lynas murdered under revolting circumstances, Walker’s pact with whoever he can’t remember is off. He abandons his self-imposed exile to return to Setharis, the ancient city in which he once trained to be a magi. There, he plans to find the bloodmage jerkbag who murdered his best friend, burn him alive, and choke him with his own intestines, though maybe not in that order.
The only problem? Walker can’t remember why he went into exile, what happened to the mentor who went missing ten year ago, or where to start hunting for whoever murdered Lynas. Unraveling this mystery while trying not to get killed by people who are very unhappy with him is the core of The Traitor God. 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.
As Walker tells us his story from a first-person narrative, he’s very clear that he’s not looking for justice. He’s looking for revenge, and as Walker is careful to remind us many times, he’s no hero, just a survivor. Yet despite his reasonable desire not to risk himself heroically defending Setharis against multi-dimensional monstrosities, Walker ends up doing just that anyway, at the core of a city-shaking battle against a horror that could have oozed right out of Akira if it wasn’t dead already. So that was cool.
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. While the ability to turn anyone into a mindless thrall seems like a useful gift, overusing that power will turn Walker into a mindless thrall of magic itself, and seeing his struggle to not take over the world was very interesting.
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.
In a satisfying conclusion, Johnston wraps up the mysteries his first book introduced while teasing a few more, and by the end of the multi-chapter final battle (no cliffhangers here!) I felt a bit out of breath. Though the big bad threat is halted (for now) the battle still left an absurdly huge pile of bodies in the streets, and obvious hints that a larger conflict looms on the horizon. I’m certain we haven’t seen the last of Edrin Walker, the magic weapons buried beneath Setharis, or the forces behind the defeated attackers, and I’m looking forward to seeing who and what Walker kicks in the balls in the sequel.
If you enjoy clever gray characters, gritty but interesting worlds, and creepy magic, this book is for you.