Another post that is a return to previously reviewed material and in fact almost entirely a translation of my old review. For the first few months about 50% of our posts were in Polish, but since we decided to go 100% English some time ago, I think it’s a good idea to make some old posts accessible to everybody. The Magicians last week were and obvious choice – with the TV series starting soon. Now I will follow with a review of first two books from Jeff Salyard’s Bloodsounder’s Arc series, and again I have a good excuse – the third one is coming out next month: Chains of the Heretic from Night Shade Books.
I loved the first two books. The final one… I have high hopes, I’m going to get it soon after publication, in hardcover. So, without further ado, here we go…
In the world deserted by the gods, a feudal kingdom of Anjuria stopped the expansion of the slave empire of Syldoon, ruled by a caste of slave-soldiers, clearly reminiscent of the Janissaries (in the first volume) or the Mamluks (in the second, when we learn more abot the socio-political structure of the empire). Nobody really won the great war and the armistice is very fragile, further fighting not commencing due to internal chaos in both states rather than mutual desire for peace. But the reader learns all that gradually, catching the glimpses of the big picture in casual remarks of some characters, characters who are, even main protagonists, only pawns on a big chessboard.
In the era of great epics, this series caught my attention by limiting its scale and telling its story from a perspective of a protagonist with very incomplete knowledge, learning the truths along with the reader, very gradually. Single, low-ranking POV character – not the most popular choice recently.
Salyards is the master of middle-sized skirmishes, 10-50 participants on both sides, realistic, not flashy, but bloody enough. More than a duel, less than an epic battle. Elegant, not too gory, not too wordy, describing in moderate details what a crossbow bolt can do to someone’s bowels. This part I find most attractive in Bloodsounder’s Arc books. I’m pretty sure the author have some experience with HEMA, or at least did much research (technologically it’s about XIV cent., with some original magic, based on memory-manipulation).
I like the narrator, Arki, a scribe employed by a company of mercenaries to record their adventures (and more, but that’s for him – and us – to learn later on). Educated but young and inexperienced, an intellectual among a band of veterans, he watches this new unfamiliar world from a distance, being a tabula rasa himself, a mirror for the staff happening to him. When somebody asks, what does he want to himself, he doesn’t really know himself. One can understand that, under the circumstances, but sometimes I wished for a protagonist more active and emotionally invested in the story. It’s an interesting literary technique, but might annoy some readers. It will change though, as Arki becomes more and more involved in what’s going on.
Magic. It’s not a magic-heavy environment. Few witches are traditionally burned at a stake, their magic being subtle and not very spectacular (and not enough to save them, usually). If the story is ever adapted for TV, special effects budget will be affordable. The only artefact, very plot-relevant (Bloodsounder, remember the series’ name 😉 ? ) is powerful, but very unpleasant for its user to wield, creating more problems than it solves. And that’s great – magic is very important in this story, but it doesn’t become a shortcut for neither our protagonists nor the author.
Religion – is important, no less than the magic. The world, as I mentioned before, is deserted by the gods and I meant in literally. One day they just decided they’re fed up with humanity and left. Why and where to – it’s still discussed by the theologians and philosophers. That mystery and the legacy left by that little known powerful beings is one of the two most important components of the big plot, along with the political intrigues.
Volume two – significantly longer – initially follows the first one, but in time changes the scale of the events. It gets epic. No longer just adventures of a small band of mercenaries, now the fate of the world is to be decided. I prefer it stayed as it started longer, but it’s still good. To judge the whole trilogy – well, I’ll need to read the final book.
Initial parts of the trilogy have distinct Black Company feel. Then it goes more Malazan. Still, there is more than enough original ideas to make it interesting. As the story goes though, parts of it become politically more and more annoying to me. Yes another slave empire… that the author seems to kind of like. But there is hope for volume three, because much is rotten in Sunwrack (the capital of this empire).
Historical revisionism is spread widely in the mainstream fantasy. The authors are probably not always aware of that any more, it’s just something one does. But I’m greatly irritated reading about another fantasy empire whose slaves are usually better off than the peasants of neighbouring patriarchal feudal monarchy. I feel like freedom is less valued than security these days and the simplistic approach of anti-western historiography finds its way into genre fiction way to often. It reminds me of John Grey’s apology of Ottoman Empire and it makes me grit my teeth ;). But I’m too sensitive to any signs of that, Salyards does not go that far, hopefully he won’t in the final instalment of his trilogy.
I remember waiting forever for book two, Night Shade was serious troubles at the time and publishing schedules weren’t kept for some time (I had it pre-ordered on Amazon and they got it half a year later than it was originally planned, time after time they wanted me to cancel but I kept my order until finally, one day, I got the package…). Book three is coming 1,5 year after that, but I was most patient this time. Lets be honest, other authors I like have bigger delays, not only GRRM ;). And it is a trilogy, so it means in a month we will have a great complete little series to read!
Score: vol. I – 8, vol. II – 7,5