Night Shade Books, under the editorial direction of Jeremy Lassen, has been publishing some of the boldest and freshest new voices in science fiction and fantasy. Writers like Kameron Hurley, Rob Ziegler, Bradley Beaulieu and now Jeff Salyards. Salyards debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer is the first installment in the Bloodsounder’s Arc trilogy and is firmly entrenched as a military fantasy. It is a novel of stark honesty, bare wounds, and harsh, uncompromising characters.
The protagonist and narrator of the story is Arki (short for Arkamondos) the scribe (embedded journalist) responsible recounting Syldoon military campaign led by Captain Braylor Killcoin. Arki is a bit hesitant about joining a military campaign, though he does wish to see more of the world. As the story progresses, the reader learns more about the Syldoons, Braylor and the realities of how much orders are followed when a military troop is a far distance from those superiors – in this case the Emperor – who issued the orders.
The plot is fairly linear as Braylor and his men journey across the land sowing discord and getting in and out of trouble with other lawmakers of the land. Salyards doesn’t offer up very much information about the world in which the novel takes place, but I found this to be very effective. With Arki providing the first person narration of the novel, why would he transcribe in great detail the history and culture of a world which the audience of his war notes would already know? Some may consider this a cheat for a new fantasy writer, but from my perspective, this allows the weight of Arki’s words, experience, and most importantly, his interactions with Captain Killcoin to possess the necessary weight of the narrative.
I found the strength of the novel to be the characters, how well they were drawn and how much I was able to sympathize, empathize, and ultimately believe in them as real people. Arki was annoying at times, Braylor was often less than personable; essentially both were flawed, imperfect human characters. The closest thing Arki had to a friend in Braylor’s crew was the enigmatic Lloi, who does draw some comparisons to or at least resonates with Joe Abercrombie’s Monza from Best Served Cold. One thing both Arki and Braylor share is an overriding sense of persistence. Braylor continues on with his orders despite the hardships and challenges that get in his way and Arki continues to inquire and basically ask “why” when he knows Braylor would end him without hesitation, after all, Arki is the fourth scribe Braylor has had to take into his unit.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bloodsounder, the flail Braylor uses which doubles as the title of the series. Bloodsounder is a powerful enchanted weapon that doesn’t quite give its bearer the benefits one might typically associate with a magical weapon. Sure it might warn of him of pending violence, but the toll it takes on Braylor’s soul and body after it is used is very exacting. Another layer setting this world outside of our own is the hint of a possibly magical barrier known as the godveil which does not do pleasant things to those who cross its threshold. It is viewed with fear and reverence and I can only draw a parallel to a war-torn regions where nuclear devices have detonated.
Justin Landon in his excellent review drew a comparison to T.C. McCarthy’s debut novel Germline, and I find it a hard comparison to ignore, though I’d also throw in Dan Abnett’s Embedded and the obligatory Joe Abercrombie and Glen Cook comparisons as well as Mark Lawrence’s debut novel Prince of Thorns for the first person narration and trudging feel of the narrative. Where the military scribe Croaker in Glen Cook’s The Black Company is very much part of the military unit, Arki is more of a newbie and is looked at by Braylor’s men and indeed himself as an outsider. Where there’s more of a wide-open feel to the military unit in The Black Company and Abercrombie’s grisly fantasy, like Abnett and McCarthy, Salyards evokes a very strong sense of claustrophobia and confinement. In full, a sense of unavoidable discomfort can be felt in the words Arki uses to describe the story and being part of Braylor’s unit. This does not make Salyards’ novel an easy comfort read by any means, if anything it made for a compelling read. For me, this unavoidable discomfort made Scourge of the Betrayer all the more fascinating and difficult to pause in reading when lunch breaks and dedicated reading times drew to a close.
Scourge of the Betrayer is an extremely impressive, concise debut novel that has only opened the door to the story Salyards is telling. Night Shade has snagged another winner in their New Voices program, Scourge of the Betrayer could be a highlight 2012 release for me.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford