Review: The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Apr 9, 2016

Here are a few things of my favourite things.

High Magic Fantasy where the magic use truly shapes and distorts the world and its cultures. Fantasy Noir with its beautiful juxtaposition of wonder and cynicism, miracles and seaminess. Older Protagonists with pasts that would make a good book in its own right. Actual Gods with their alien-yet-familiar blend of grandeur and hubris. And Murder Mysteries. Always Murder Mysteries.

Disclaimer - I know Cameron a bit from the internet. He seems a nice guy and I'm happy he got published. But I wasn't sure I wanted to buy his book until I started reading the blurbs and discovered The Traitor God is rammed full of these things. At which point I pre-ordered it immediately.

Johnston really delivers on the High Magic and Noir. The narrative tone is very reminiscent of Daniel Polansky's Low Town, but with an added levity that keeps the atmosphere vibrant instead of overbearing. The characters have that vibe of jagged fraility and right mix of cynicism, courage, callousness and (occasional) compassion for noir. Johnston's take on magic, where it is so part of each Magus that it affects even their bodily waste, is one of the more interesting I've seen in forever. I sometimes struggle with High Magic books where the focus on the reality-bending rules drastically weakens the plot. By and large, Johnston avoids that trap.

Where the story does fall a little flat is the Murder Mystery. The advertising overstated the extent to which that was the focus of the book, leaving my expectations disappointed. What there is of it is intriguing, but the resolution is quick and unsatisfying. From there the book takes a more action orientated slant. Johnston writes a good action scene, but the change in emphasis will not be welcomed by every reader, and some will find they didn't bond enough with the cast to care about the outcome.

Likewise, the Actual Gods are sparingly used, but to great effect. There's one particularly satisfying flashback from Edrin Walker, our Older Protagonist. As for Edrin himself, he's the standard damaged yet intensely loyal and tenacious loner and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. His strongest suit are his moments of bittersweet reflection and regret. Part of me thinks these could have been used more frequently; the other part suspects more frequent use would have made him a whiner. I suspect the balance was put in the right place. With a few more killer lines, he could be a real genre favourite.

Ultimately, enough of the elements are right for The Traitor God to be a good book. The storytelling may be uneven in places, but the energy and heart of the book will carry most readers on past that. The blended of high octane action and dark humanity reminds me of William Gibson's Neuromancer. I'm not saying Johnston will go on to be as well known and celebrated as Gibson - probably not if we're being honest - but The Traitor God has persuaded me there should definitely be another book so we can find out. I look forwards to it.
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