The Traitor is the third and final book in Anthony Ryan’s medieval-style Covenant of Steel fantasy series. For those who like muddy clashes between huge armies with swords and horses or sieges of walled cities or misguided prophecies, it would be best to start with volume one of this series The Pariah. While there is a handy recap of the events of the previous book, this is absolutely the third book of a trilogy and not a place to start. Given that, there will necessarily be some mild spoilers for those earlier novels in this review.
The cliffhanger ending of The Martyr, found the protagonist narrator Alwyn Scribe learning something that perhaps he could have guessed earlier about his leader the Risen Martyr Evadine. And yet, despite this knowledge he remains in her thrall for a good part of the first section of The Traitor until, as the name of the book suggests, he wakes up to the danger that she actually poses and takes against her. The book then becomes a long and complex build up to a possibly final confrontation as the odds continue to stack up against Alwyn and his shaky alliance. As with the second book in this series, this is all informed by a lengthy spirit-quest to retrieve a magical item and confirm Alywn’s centrality to the outcome of the battle to come. But as always in these types of narratives, despite eons of prophecy the ultimate outcome of this particular battle is somehow “not fixed”. The fact that Alwyn is narrating the action in what is a long time past past-tense might give readers a hint though.
A lot of the pleasure of this series comes from Alywn’s knowing narration. He tells readers when he is doing the wrong thing, he knows in hindsight where he was foolish and he effectively foreshadows the outcomes of some of his poor decision making without spoiling the enjoyment of reading about the result. Once again Alwyn is supported by an engaging band of misfits and ne’er-do-wells. Some of his companions failed to make it to book three and, refreshingly, not all survive every bloody and dangerous encounter in this book either. These side characters bring with them all of the skills that Alwyn needs to effect his plans and add a necessary strain of both humour and humanity to the tale.
The Traitor is a page-turning and fitting conclusion to the Covenant of Steel series. While it contains plenty of big set-piece battles, it holds back a little from the previous books, concentrating more on the manoeuvring and planning that goes behind making these encounters either fail or succeed. Topically, it depicts a leader drunk on her own power developing a cult of personality which enables a horde of followers, who fail to question why they are asked, do horrific things in her name. And it considers the compromises that a ragtag group of opponents with disparate views and positions need to coalesce make to bring her down.
While this is the end of this series and most loose ends are tied up, Ryan leaves an inviting, dangling thread which suggests that he may have more stories to tell in this world. Given that this story has only really explored one part of that world, more tales involving Alwyn Scribe are definitely on the cards and likely to be welcomed by fans of this form of fantasy.