‘The Black Company’ by Glen Cook


The Black Company is narrated through a single PoV: Croaker, a physician and annalist working for a mercenary force called – you guessed it! – the Black Company. The Company have been hired by The Lady (an ancient tyrant) who along with her monstrous generals (twisted supernatural beings known as the Ten Who Were Taken) is intent on defeating the Rebel armies and ruling all the known lands (obvs).

The Black Company by Glen CookCook’s writing style is not exactly immersive. While I would call it refreshingly blunt, others might (and often do) dismiss it as jarring and curt. The Black Company‘s brusque prose and terse descriptions – not to mention the author’s casual tendency to skip over major events in the spaces between paragraphs! – lend even major scenes a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of urgency. This is a somewhat disorientating stylistic choice, but it’s one to which I quickly became accustomed.

I think The Black Company is the first example of ‘GRIMDARK’ fiction I ever read (closely followed by Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself). In fact, I still recall the thrill of reading it for the first time and getting to grips with the fact that this Cook feller had written an actual book about actual mercenaries who are actually fighting on the side of the bad guys. Nowadays, of course, grimdark tales are a dime a dozen. But back then, I’d never encountered anything of the kind. In my experience, fantasy protagonists were heroes. Young wizards. Daring hobbits. Chosen ones. Protectors. Guardians of humanity. Good guys. In stark contrast, Croaker and the rest of the Black Company are entirely motivated by greed and selfishness – at least to start off with. This, I soon discovered, made them just as entertaining as Harry, Ron and Hermione; as Eragon and Murtagh, and the Fellowship of the Ring.

And the characters aren’t the only selling point. Cook has also created a grim, eerie and satisfyingly dark world, which he establishes primarily by dropping carefully offhand hints about the Taken. With evocative (if slightly unimaginative) names like Nightcrawler, Soulcatcher, Moonbiter, Bonegnasher, The Howler, and The Hanged Man, the Taken lurk threateningly on the periphery where, shrouded in mystery, these monstrous creatures add an extra thrill of horror to the already ominous atmosphere.

The Black Company is also packed full of action. However, and most of it happens to be tersely described from a distance. While this befits the premise of Croaker as annalist (think Duiker in Deadhouse Gates), unfortunately it does at times feel like little more than a dull, dry listing of distant events. Furthermore, much of the action is disappointingly hampered by apparent numerical inconsistencies. For instance, although Cook informs us that the Black Company has hundreds of members he only ever lets the reader meet a handful. This wouldn’t be a problem… except that the others are barely even mentioned except when Croaker infrequently refers to the Company as a whole. It’s difficult, therefore, to reconcile that initial image of a small group of mercenaries with the massive force we’re suddenly shown later in the book.

And even the climax fell a bit flat, with Cook repeatedly telling us that the battle involves over 250,000 combatants – yet never quite succeeding in conveying the true scale of the conflict.

One final issue. Every writer knows that the biggest challenge with first-person narration is finding pretexts for the protagonist to witness and (ideally) participate in key events. Cook’s pretexts for getting Croaker in the thick of things – which essentially boil down to ‘get sent on special missions by the Lady again and again, despite not being one of the most skilled fighters in the company’ – are a bit flimsy to say the least.

Still, The Black Company is the progenitor of some truly stellar military fantasy by the likes of Steven Erikson and Jeff Salyards. While it’s a bit iffy to begin with, it soon books its ideas up, and is perfect for fans of the grimdark genre.lauramhughes-sig

‘The Grey Bastards’ by Jonathan French


The Grey Bastards is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 31st December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.

spfbo-lauramhughes-smallI have a bone to pick with you, Jonathan French, aka. author of The Grey Bastards. You, sir, owe me a great many hours of sleep; hours that were spent avidly following the grim adventures of Jackal and co.

Mr. French, the pacing of your novel is truly brilliant. Starting with a ‘bang’ and then racing from conflicts and schemes to plot twists and battles, Bastards is what one might call a ‘rip-roaring adventure’: brutal, brave, and utterly fearless. The chapters are long, yet each end in a way that compels you to continue reading. Not since Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus (Fantasy-Faction’s very own chosen finalist) have I devoured a SPFBO book so
eagerly.

Electing to tell the entire story through Jackal’s PoV is another engaging piece of trickery. As you’re clearly well aware, Mr French, keeping the reader invested in one character not only raises the stakes whenever he is in danger but also makes the book a journey of discovery for both protagonist and reader. In a genre dominated by sprawling, multiple-pov sagas, Bastards’ singular focus on one part of the world (and your protagonist’s place within it) is refreshing and exciting. Bravo, sir!

However: in some ways The Grey Bastards is an uncomfortable read. Did you know, Mr. French, that the word ‘fuck’ appears in your novel a total of 230 times? And ‘shit’, 69 times? Why is she even mentioning this? you might be wondering; after all, Hughes is usually the last person to be offended over a bit of bad language! My fellow swear-brother T.O. Munro observed not too long ago that ‘cussing and expletives are a fact of real-life and fantasy reading and writing should reflect that’. I happen to whole-heartedly agree. But I suspect that in this case, Mr French, there will be many others who don’t. Here’s why.

The word ‘quim’ appears 19 times. The word ‘cunt’, 12, and ‘cunny’, 6. Those under the impression that misogyny is exclusively the domain of men will no doubt label this phenomenon simply as ‘testosterone’. But even considering that 80-90% of the characters are male (or swine…), this is a whopping amount of misogyny (and vulgarity) for one book. And yes, even I took exception to it at first.

However, as the story went on and I became inured to the language I realised with a jolt that perhaps this is what you were trying to do all along. By involving the reader so thoroughly in the half-orcs’ vernacular that it becomes natural to us you make us unwittingly complicit in their worldview. And the moment we realise this, the more we come to understand the ‘mongrels’ and to notice that some characters use these terms less broadly than others. While many wield the word ‘quim’ about as naturally as an elderly person uses casual racism (by which I mean as a harmful yet unconscious product of their upbringing), others use it much more aggressively, either as an insult or as a way of deliberately demeaning certain individuals. Either way, such ingrained chauvinism is shocking . . . but it also tells us a lot about the nature of certain characters. And the rare moments of its absence also happen to be an excellent way of highlighting honourable actions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by us.

The fact is, Mr French, your half-orcs have entirely different values to your readers. In many cases, these differences will be irreconcilable, and no doubt many a reader will criticise the book for its rampant and unforgiveable misogyny. To these readers I would simply say: well, what on earth did you expect? But I’d also encourage them to read on; to read between the lines, and to reserve judgement until the story is done. Because while the bigger picture changes very little, the ways in which it has changed are crucial. Subtle, even.

I’ll admit that ‘subtle’ is the last word I’d expect to see used when referring to a book featuring a hog-riding half-orc on the cover and emblazoned with the title ‘The Grey Bastards’. A book that, even for me, felt like entering some exclusive boys’ club, one where I wasn’t forbidden but neither was I welcomed. A book that is saturated with derogatory terms for women, and with characters who view women as little more than ‘walking genitalia’ (as Adrian aptly pointed out in their review on Bibliotropic). However, the initial sense of being ostracised vanishes within just a few pages. I daresay that no reader can refuse Jackal’s honest charm, or that of his companions Oats and Fetching. And the Kiln wasn’t built in a day; likewise, reform – of any kind – takes time, and every step is a step in the right direction.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

To sum up then, Mr. French: I envy and admire you for this story you’ve crafted. Bastards is brutal. Bastards is brave. Bastards is utterly fearless and unashamed of being what it is. I greedily await more from Jackal and co., and fully intend to hound you for news about the hoof – a truer set of bastards you’ll never meet. I notice that you have a couple of other books available for purchase (at a very reasonable price, I might add) and I look forward to sampling these while I wait impatiently for you to take me back to the Lots.

For now, though, I’d like to raise a floppy tankard to The Grey Bastards’ brilliance. It’s the least I can do after such a satisfying ride, and I’m confident I won’t be the only SPFBO judge who does solauramhughes-sig

‘Herald of the Storm’ by Richard Ford


Comparisons to other authors can hurt a book rather than help it. Typically, readers draw parallels between Ford’s work and that of George R.R. Martin (though let’s face it, it seems rare nowadays for a fantasy novel to escape comparison to – or endorsement by! – ol’ GRRM). Richard Ford’s debut is no exception. However, aside from the structure (alternating chapters from differing points of view) and maybe a bit of the grittiness I wouldn’t personally make this comparison, partly because ASoIaF is something of a sweeping epic, while Herald of the Storm concerns itself entirely with the city of Steelhaven.

Stand together . . . or die alone.

The contained setting is, for me, the book’s strongest point. The plot is tight and pacy, and the ways in which several of the individual storylines were eventually interwoven was nicely done. There are two or three main plotlines occurring at the same time – an illegal slave-trading operation, a royal assassination attempt, and an act of dark magic – and it’s interesting to see how different characters are involved in each plot, and how each mini-plot becomes relevant to the bigger picture. In fact, the whole book does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series.

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters: there’s Kaira Stormfall, morally upright Shieldmaiden of the goddess Vorena; Janessa Mastragall, innocent and headstrong heir to the throne; River, an assassin with a conflicted soul; Merrick Ryder, a former duellist and dandy who has fallen on hard times; Rag, a street urchin and pickpocket; Nobul Jacks, soldier-turned blacksmith-turned city guard; and Waylian Grimm, apprentice in the tower of magick (no, I’m not sure why it has to be spelt with a ‘k’ either). Although there are a fair amount of characters, the variety between them really makes it work.

Herald of the Storm by Richard FordThe author cleverly uses the novel’s form to keep certain things – e.g. the identity of certain characters – hidden until key moments. Ford uses alternating PoV chapters to gradually reveal surprising connections and illustrate the impact of characters’ decisions on others. I did feel that some storylines felt a little out of place: Rag’s story came to feel a bit irrelevant, and Waylian (and magick in general) also seemed somewhat shoe-horned into the story. However, the final chapters for these characters do seem to suggest that both will play a larger role in future novels.

A quick point about the language: I don’t have a problem with profanity in fiction, as long as the language fits with the character of the person who’s saying it. The author has created several less-than-golden characters here (many of whom swear frequently), and while they suit Herald’s grimdark tone the fucks and shits do become a bit tiresome!

Earlier, I mentioned the use of GRRM as a benchmark for modern fantasy novels. Fact is, I bought this book on the strength of its comparisons with Joe Abercrombie. While I can certainly see the similarities – character-driven storytelling, grimy characters, dirty deeds – Ford’s characters didn’t quite spring to life for me in the same way as Logen, Glokta, Monza et al., and I think this is another case of hurting a book by (unfairly) comparing it to another of a very high standard. One review raved that Herald of the Storm was actually much better than the First Law trilogy, and I couldn’t help being just a tiny bit disappointed.

However, unrealistic as my expectations were I still enjoyed the book a lot. The characters grew on me over time, and I look forward to reading Steelhaven #2: The Shattered Crown.


Review originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2017.

‘Prince of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


 Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.

Consider yourself warned: Mark Lawrence’s debut novel is not for the faint of heart. Prince of Thorns kicks off the notoriously dark Broken Empire trilogy, and readers should embark on Jorg’s journey fully prepared for blood, death and macabre humour of the kind one might find in the novels of Joe Abercrombie.

Right off the bat Lawrence throws us in amongst Jorg’s band of unscrupulous ‘Brothers’, who are not only looting and burning a village but also raping and murdering its inhabitants. (It’s at this point which many a reader has reached the firm conclusion that this merry tale is not to their liking.)

Prince of Thorns by Mark LawrenceSome would say that such a controversial opening chapter risks alienating readers who are familiar with more traditional fantasy openings, and they’d be right. But although it’s risky, that single scene is more than justified by the fact that it cleverly conveys so much about Jorg and his companions more than justifies its casual brutality. Jorg Ancrath has witnessed (and perpetrated) all sorts of atrocities during his transformation from privileged prince to dangerous rogue. Now, he has to confront dark magic, the walking dead and childhood horrors if he’s to succeed in conquering the known world.

Personally, I enjoyed the way Prince of Thorns shattered my expectations, and left me full of questions about the Broken Empire (some of which I’m still waiting to be answered!). Though the opening events well and truly hooked me, it’s the prose that sustained my interest throughout the rest of the book’s early chapters; Lawrence’s narrative style is a wonder to read. The narrator’s voice is distinctive, captivating and intriguingly changeable in line with Jorg’s raging internal conflict.

Jorg appears to be inhumanly detached from emotions (his own, and others’) to the extent that he’s essentially incapable of empathising with anyone around him. Alternately cold, hard, sarcastic, deadpan, humorous – none of these facets of the character are particularly likeable. However, it becomes clear that this is (to an extent) more a persona than a personality; and, while Jorg is clearly ignorant of what is happening to him, we as readers are able to recognise and appreciate the gradual emergence of compunction and sympathy. It’s a subtle development, but one which proves that characters don’t always have to be sympathetic to be engaging.

One minor gripe about the book is that I wish it included more of the Brothers than just the occasional entertaining anecdote or one-liner between chapters. Jorg might not care much about his Brothers, but I wanted to know more about what makes them tick. (Thankfully, Lawrence’s aptly-titled Road Brothers anthology goes a long way towards addressing this… though to my shame I haven’t read it yet.)

In a nutshell, then: Prince of Thorns is a dark novel, but not as dark as others would have you believe. The characters are entertaining, the world is fascinating, and the imagery is vivid and staggering. Many readers find themselves alienated by the beginning, but many more have (like me) read right to the end (three times!) and still come back for more.

FYI: The original review was posted at halfstrungharp.com on 18th September 2013. It was the second review I ever wrote – and Mark was the first author I ever interacted with on Twitter!

‘Beyond Redemption’ by Michael R. Fletcher


Beyond Redemption is a classic Western adventure tale. Three cowboys, bound by a beautiful friendship, return home to their ranch after a hard day’s work only to find—

Wait! I’m kidding.

Heh. Got you.

Beyond Redemption is, in fact, a classic case of DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. Surreal and bloody, this first instalment in Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions series is an uncomfortable and captivating exploration of imperfect characters in a broken world.Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

If someone decided to make a crossover between Inception and Robin Hood set in the Broken Empire, it might look a little bit like Beyond Redemption. Granted, Fletcher’s heroes aren’t exactly the Merry Men:

“We work together. We’re a team. A shite team, but we get things done. We aren’t friends and we sure as shite aren’t lovers. Never forget: I’d kill either of you if there was money in it for me.”

In fact, they might be the least merry protagonists I’ve ever encountered. A fair few of them could easily blend in with Steven Erikson’s grittier creations, while others wouldn’t look out of place amongst Jorg Ancrath’s Road Brothers. And in true ‘grimdark’ fashion, these morally murky men and women are not the exception but the norm.

'Bedeckt': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Bedeckt’: art by Quint VonCanon

Now, the prospect of villainous psychopaths roaming in heavily-armed bands is worrisome enough in any context. But in Fletcher’s world, it’s downright terrifying.

Why?

“The more people who believed something, the truer it became.”

That’s right: in the aptly-titled Manifest Delusions universe, belief defines reality. The more unstable the mind, the more powerful the belief.

I’ve adored this concept ever since I first read Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: a brilliant tale in which an assassin attempts to murder Discworld’s version of Father Christmas by manipulating children so that they no longer believe in him.

Of course, Beyond Redemption executes this idea with less levity and a lot more dark abandon. Where Pratchett has ‘spare’ belief (leftover from the dwindling Hogfather) that spontaneously spawns quirky-yet-harmless anthropomorphic personifications (like the Oh-God of Hangovers, the Verruca Gnome, the Hair-Loss Fairy and the Eater of Socks), Fletcher instead gives us murderous embodiments of our own paranoias: reflections that become Doppels (identical copies); Doppels that then plot to steal our identity; and of course one man’s master plan to engineer the birth of an all-powerful god through the indoctrination of an entire city.

'The Slaver': art by Quint VonCanon

‘The Slaver’: art by Quint VonCanon

Nothing is as it seems in the world of Manifest Delusions. ‘Reality’ itself is a misnomer; neither trust nor truth exists, because everyone is out only for themselves.

“All communication is manipulation,” said Konig. “All interaction, social or otherwise, is a means of getting what you want. It’s the basis of society.”

Such oh-so-logical philosophising by characters like Konig is enough to boggle the mind and leave even the sanest reader questioning things they’ve always taken for granted – including the very definition of ‘sane’.

In fact, Beyond Redemption might be the first genre novel I’ve encountered that is brave enough to explore different perceptions and consequences of mental illness and psychological disorders in a fantastical context. It’s a difficult subject, to be sure, but anyone who’s concerned about serious issues being reduced to convenient plot vehicles may rest assured that Fletcher has clearly approached the material with gravity (and research).

Far from diminishing the seriousness and severity of such issues, Fletcher brings them to the forefront and makes them literal, tackling them head-on in a refreshingly direct approach. Much like visual depictions of widely-suffered conditions (such as depression, anxiety, anorexia, OCD and agoraphobia) the author gives us obsessions and fears made flesh to better illustrate the nuances of each ‘delusion’. Furthermore, he refuses to use language to obscure or euphemise any of his characters’ conditions, which is why it’s not too difficult for the reader to infer what (for example) a Doppel, a Dysmorphic, a Kleptic or a Therianthrope might be.

'Some men fall apart... some fall to scorpions': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Some men fall apart… some fall to scorpions’: art by Quint VonCanon

Beyond Redemption shows us a reality where none of this is hidden, and delusions are common knowledge. To some extent, Beyond Redemption normalises these disorders; and it does so without erasing their individual complexity – or undermining the suffering they cause.

Admittedly, this portrayal appears to be entirely negative at first. We meet a sociopath, a pyromaniac and a murderous kleptomaniac in quick succession, all of whom are incapable of empathy and prone to sadistic, violent impulses.

But by subtly unravelling their personalities (or should that be personas?) and revealing the psychological reasons behind their mania, the author hints that many – if not all – are themselves victims.

“She’d always assumed she could blame her parents, but what if she’d been born broken?”

Though initially it seems that the characters are defined by their disorders, the story focuses more on how the characters choose to define themselves. Their disorders have a part in shaping their personality, of course. But it’s the characters’ decisions – and whether they embrace, resist, pursue or exploit their own unique brand delusion – that ultimately define them. A subtle distinction, but an important one.

“She’d burn everything someday. Every ounce of hurt their fear caused her would be repaid in full. She’d burn the world.”

Even those with the most exaggerated abilities are much more than their delusions. In the reader’s mind Gehirn is not merely, as the other characters call her, ‘the Hassebrand’; she is Gehirn. Stehlen is not ‘the Kleptic’, and even Erbrechen is not ‘the Slaver.’ (The ‘fat slug’, on the other hand…)

'Gehirn, the Hassebrand': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Gehirn, the Hassebrand’: art by Quint VonCanon

At first glance, Beyond Redemption features rock-hard characters in a rock-hard world:

“Failure may be a harsh teacher, but you tend not to forget its lessons.”

But the more time we spend in their heads, the more we come to recognise and appreciate the author’s laudable knack for making even the vilest, most repulsive characters sympathetic. He accomplishes this by cunningly combining tragedy and comedy:

“You never met your mother? That’s not all bad. Mine sent me away to live with my father. He sent me back after I sold his horse to buy a lute.”

In fact, there’s a continuous undercurrent of black humour that’s as surprising as it is entertaining. This manifests in the well-written dialogue and harsh character banter, but also in the novel’s careful structure. For me, some of the most humorous and effective moments arose from juxtaposed scenes in which one characters’ thoughts or predictions are immediately followed by another’s contradictory (or supporting!) actions – a juxtaposition further enhanced by witty epigraphs that are alternately hilarious and disturbing.

“I heard a knock, and when I answered the door, there I was. Luckily I think much faster on my feet than I do and soon had myself tied in the fruit cellar.”

These increasingly delusional epigraphs – most of which are attributed to fictional ‘Gefahrgeist’ (sociopaths) – foreshadow some of the characters’ fates, and hint at the dangers for those who wield the power of delusion. A delusionists’ powers become stronger in inverse proportion to his or her sanity. But cross too far into insanity . . . and he/she loses themselves entirely.

“His delusions were growing in strength. Soon they would drag him down.”

Like all compelling magic ‘systems’, delusion (ironically) has limitations. Paradoxically, the more powerful the manifestation, the more real (and thus restricted by reality’s laws) it becomes. And so, in a fluid world where anything is possible, Fletcher instead gives us nightmares and gritty realism; a realm of manifest delusions where nothing is clean and even the sacred is profane.

Even the most powerful (and badass) beings are subject to certain physical rules:

“She tried to scream at Gehirn but only a dry croak escaped. She’d forgotten to fill her lungs. It annoyed her. She tried to draw breath and failed. Fire had burned ragged holes in her papery lungs. This would make communication difficult in the future.”

Here, the Cotardist assassin Anomie (who will feature in Grimdark Magazine’s Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology) is hampered by physical limitations, despite herself being a living (kind of), breathing (sort of), walking defiance of the laws of physics.

'The Mirrorist's Eye': art by Quint VonCanon

‘The Mirrorist’s Eye’: art by Quint VonCanon

Now, you’d think ‘far-fetched’ would be an adjective that could automatically be applied to Beyond Redemption. But Fletcher’s world is far from whimsical, and the small details and down-to-earth descriptions ground the reader utterly in this dangerous, dirty reality.

“Storm clouds spiraled in toward some central point like filthy water draining from a sink.”

Favouring grimy realism over purple prose, Fletcher writes with a brutal straightforwardness that fits the story perfectly. His characters are vivid and well-developed, often surprising us – for good or for bad – by behaving in ways that are at once unexpected and painfully believable. Their voices, too, are distinctive. Whether it’s Wichtig’s hyperbole, Gehirn’s self-loathing or Morgen’s gullibility, there’s little chance of forgetting whose PoV we’re currently inhabiting. Without exception, they’re all fascinating, compelling characters.

In fact, the entirety of Beyond Redemption is both fascinating and compelling. Michael R. Fletcher’s delusions are dark, bloody and shocking. If you haven’t met them already, I’d highly recommend you make their acquaintance. Just . . . don’t get too close to the mirror.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. Fletcher (FB header)

The second Manifest Delusions novel, ‘The Mirror’s Truth’, is releasing soon!


This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on October 30th 2016.


(Reviewer’s note: The author uses German and Basque words for his characters and place names, apparently mangling both languages in the process. I don’t speak either one, so apart from a bit of head scratching at the very beginning I didn’t have a problem keeping track. I can see how it might be confusing, though, so here’s a link to the author’s Manifest Delusions Wiki for anyone who’s struggling!)

Jeff Salyards, ‘Chains of the Heretic’ (review)


Chains of the Heretic is the spectacular denouement to a spectacular (-ly underrated) series, each instalment of which is more thoughtful, more entertaining and more accomplished than the last. Salyards really hit his stride in the second half of the trilogy, and the momentum he’s built so far – carefully rolled into motion in Scourge of the Betrayer, then gaining traction in Veil of the Deserters – hurtles right through into book three like an unlikely boulder in a Tomb Raider game.

Just like Veil, Chains picks up right where the previous book left off. The end is in sight for our endearing protagonist Arki, but he still has a long way to go before he completes his journey from insular local scribe to inured military chronicler. The road he travels is rougher and more dangerous than ever before, but so is Arki. His own resilience, as well as the company he’s kept, have shaped him into a slightly older, wiser and stronger version of himself; and there’s no question that the Arki in this book is somehow more than the Arki we met back in book one.

Earlier in the trilogy Arki was pathetically grateful when the Syldoon first began to (grudgingly) toss scraps of knowledge and kindness in his direction – as though Arki were a barely-tolerated mongrel and their non-abusive words, bones. These scant personal victories provided rare clues that helped us first begin to unravel the layers of posturing, and so we the reader were just as grateful as Arki for these little titbits of information.

And then time passes, group dynamics change, and sympathetic gestures and enlightening conversations start to become more frequent (though still far from the norm). This inevitable yet somehow surprising development takes place whilst Arki himself – partly due to his sheer persistence in the Sisyphean struggle to win over his new employers – surpasses the Syldoons’ (admittedly low) expectations, earning himself a healthy measure of respect along the way.

It’s impossible to identify exactly when Arki makes this transformation – from hindrance to help, from awkward servant to inept-but-determined ally – because the process is so gradual and subtle. But there’s no doubting that some of the hardest bastards in the Syldoon empire now look upon little Arki as a friend and confidante, and others, as more than a friend (wink, wink). It’s incredibly satisfying to see Arki grow in confidence; to watch as he earns the right not only to question men who he once feared but also to boldly banter with the best of them. Arki is no longer someone we feel sorry for, but someone who we admire; no longer a cowering dog but a steadfast jackal.

Cover Image: Jeff Salyards, 'Chains of the Heretic'
Sometime during Veil of the Deserters Arki crossed an intangible line, after which the Syldoon ceased to be “them” and instead became “us”. But there’s far more to it than simply becoming ‘one of the lads’. With familiarity comes the weight of responsibility; and Arki’s tacit acceptance into the company brings moral crisis and a nagging sense of culpability for the Syldoons’ violent actions. On the other hand, as Arki adapts to his surroundings, so too are the other characters subtly transformed through their interactions with the curious and well-meaning scribe. It’s true that these tough-as-nails soldiers are nearly as reluctant to volunteer information about themselves as they would be to stick their arm inside a ripper’s cage; but Salyards gives the impression that they wouldn’t be sharing their secrets at all if it had been anyone except Arki who’d asked for them.

Even so, the Syldoon aren’t exactly brimming with revelations. This is partly because they’re well-rounded and realistic secondary characters as opposed to bog-standard RPG-type henchmen. Salyards doesn’t bombard us with endless side quests, and refrains from trying to shoehorn Arki’s companions’ tales into the story. Instead, each subplot branches off from the main events of the Arc to flourish or to die elsewhere, or else lie unresolved beneath the surface of future conversations. By not involving Arki in these subplots any more deeply than he absolutely needs to be, Salyards creates the illusion that every character’s life is just as independent and complex as anyone else’s, both on and off the page – yet another detail that adds another layer to this series’ foundation of realism and depth.

Prospective readers of Bloodsounder’s Arc should be aware that, thanks to the ‘real time’ first person narrative, they’ll quite literally spend every moment with this same close-knit group of characters, and I’ll not deny that there are times when the campsite conversations start to feel a little too familiar, the drawn-out explanations of history and lore somewhat repetitive, and the company’s road banter ever-so-slightly predictable. But such things can be easily overlooked as long as the characters are compelling, and dark fantasy rarely spits out any who are more compelling than Salyards’ Syldoon. Coarse but clever, dangerous yet loyal, they thunder into being and charge off the page. After which they grab you by the throat. Then use their free hand to punch you in the balls.

Small wonder Arki’s changed after spending months surrounded by abrasive and foul-mouthed companions (whose crude banter is a continual source of amusement – and sometimes violence!). But beneath the jokes there lies a surprisingly strong undercurrent of pathos poignantly reminiscent of that which accompanied the closing moments of Scourge of the Betrayer. The author manipulates mood using means both subtle and understated, just as he does with a great many other aspects of Bloodsounder’s Arc. For example, Salyards creates unique settings, awe-inspiring mythologies and a plot that is stunningly epic and original, and essentially uses them as tools with which to hone and develop his protagonists. This clever inversion of form – using events that, as they escalate, work to enhance rather than dilute the focus on humanity – ensures two things: that Arki and the other characters remain front and centre at all times; and that the story retains the intimacy and immediacy that has set this entire trilogy apart from the very beginning.

I’ve said before (many times) that this surprisingly subtle, occasionally meandering series also happens to boast some of the most brutal, tense and realistic combat scenes I’ve ever read – and Chains of the Heretic is no exception. Blow-by-blow descriptions, fallible weapons, dodgy armour, long-term injuries and unlucky timing. I raved about the exquisiteness of Salyards’ fight scenes when I reviewed both Scourge of the Betrayer and Veil of the Deserters, and don’t wish to bore anyone with repetition. Suffice it to say that Chains takes everything – everything – to the next level with its larger-than-life anti-heroes, settings both bizarre and beautiful, and an increasingly brutal body count.

Essentially, the entire Bloodsounder’s Arc is one huge book that just happens to be split into three parts. Neither part makes sense without the others, nor is the story – or the experience – complete until you’ve read all three books. You might be thinking, ‘well, obviously – it’s a trilogy, numbnuts.’ And you’d be right. But what I mean is that, at its heart, Arki’s journey – as a writer and as an individual – is also Salyards’ journey. Every novel that has ever existed is a labour of love, time and dedication; but there’s something incredibly rewarding, not to mention personal, in witnessing a debut writer’s very own arc from the uncertainty of their first novel through to a finished work of art.

And make no mistake: Bloodsounder’s Arc is a work of art, a dark and masterful tapestry of tension and momentum wherein each word weaves a more deftly spun strand than the last. The final triptych, Chains of the Heretic, is Salyards’ pièce de résistance, falling naturally but devastatingly into its place as the boldest and most brutal piece of the saga.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe Chains of the Heretic as a ‘happy’ ending to the series, but it’s certainly a satisfying one. Which is fortunate, since Salyards has made it clear that while he may eventually return to the world of Bloodsounder he has no immediate intention of doing so. Rumour has it that he’s currently working on something radically different to the Arc: a fast-paced urban fantasy/SF novel set fifty years in the future and tentatively titled Grimoire Zero.

In the meantime, those who are desperate for more Bloodsounder will want to check out Salyards’ short story contributions to the anthologies Neverland’s Library (Ragnarok) and the forthcoming Evil is a Matter of Perspective (Grimdark Magazine). In fact, I urge you to do so.

[Check out the full original review over on Fantasy-Faction.com!]

Joe Abercrombie, ‘Best Served Cold’ (review)


Damn. I’d forgotten how good this book is. Darker, bloodier and even more entertaining than Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is the ultimate revenge story packed with pain, fury and absurdity from its spectacular opening sequence to its final poignant pages.
Joe Abercrombie, BEST SERVED COLD

The premise of Best Served Cold is simple: heroine is betrayed – heroine gets back up again – heroine sets out to get revenge. And at first it really is that simple. Monza Murcatto, the infamous Butcher of Caprile, sets her sights on seven enemies and vows to do anything she needs to in order to see them all dead. Recruiting a merry band of thugs – including a poisoner, a Northman and a torturer – she embarks on her glorious mission. But perhaps revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps the people she trusts are the ones holding the knives . . . and perhaps Monza herself isn’t quite everything she appears to be.

Knives

The tale is, of course, set in the world of First Law (though several years after the events of the original trilogy). Here we are introduced to the ‘exotic’ land of Styria: a fractured continent hosting a decades-long civil war at a time commonly referred to as the Years of Blood. Although Best Served Cold is technically classed as a standalone, the sheer amount of references to the original trilogy – not to mention cameo appearances from several characters – means that those already familiar with the events of First Law will likely enjoy it considerably more than those new to Abercrombie’s world.

Blood & revenge

Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s absurd and bloody take on the standard revenge trope: absurd because of its eclectic mix of characters, and bloody because of the chaos they cause. But it’s also an insanely fun and entertaining journey, with the plot taking something of a backseat to colourful characters who gradually reveal themselves to be so much more than the exaggerated caricatures they first appear to be.

The world they live in is equally colourful, with vicious politics and treacherous leaders dangerously influencing critical events. The settings in particular are fantastically vivid and immersive: even now I can clearly visualise every bloody sunset, picture every pane of glass in the roof of the Banking House of Valint and Balk, startle at the canal boats looming out of the fog in gloomy Sipani and wonder at the majesty of impregnable Fontezarmo. Though Styria is certainly not a place anyone in their right mind would choose to live, I found I could picture its various regions just as vividly as if I’d actually been there.

Vicious and vivid

Although often dark and suffused with bleakness, Best Served Cold is also really, really bloody funny (particularly during Nicomo Cosca and Castor Morveer’s PoV chapters). Ironic observations, humorous dialogue, self-deprecating comments and hilariously inappropriate remarks are particular specialties of Abercrombie’s, and Best Served Cold abounds with all of them. Abercrombie cleverly blends brutality and gore with laughter and levity to create a perfectly dark, gritty tale of revenge and ruin. This is Abercrombie at his absolute best.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 22nd October 2015.)


Blurb

Springtime in Styria. And that means war.

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.

War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.

Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started…

Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.

Grimdark Magazine’s ‘Evil’ Kickstarter – LAST DAY


Anyone wanting to jump on the back of Grimdark Magazine‘s anthology Kickstarter has less than 28 hours to do so.

Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists on Kickstarter

Started up by the founder of GDM, Adrian Collins, this Kickstarter is a kick-ass collaboration of fantasy readers and writers. The anthology, titled ‘Evil is a Matter of Perspective, will be packed with short stories by some of the genre’s most popular and talented modern authors. Each tale will feature an antagonist from the author’s existing work.

Featuring the likes of JEFF SALYARDS, T. FROHOCK, COURTNEY SCHAFER, MARC TURNER, JANNY WURTS, ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY and R. SCOTT BAKKER, ‘Evil is a Matter of Perspective’ is a truly exciting project well worth investing in.

Here’s the link one more time. The clock is ticking, grimdarkians . . .