While I enjoyed Scourge of the Betrayer, the first book of Bloodsounder's Arc, it was Veil of the Deserters that really opened my eyes to what Jeff Salyardswas capable of. Not only did it overcome the dreaded middle-book curse, it actually proved to be one of those rare sequels that completely surpass the first. I came away from it thoroughly satisfied, but also hungry for more.
That brings us to Chains of the Heretic, the third and final book of Bloodsounder's Arc. Where that second volume expanded upon the world and the story of the first, this one rips that world wide open and shoves us headlong into a whole new heap of betrayals. More importantly, where that second book was a textbook example of how you build to a climax,Chains of the Heretic schools the genre on how you successfully deliver it.
Seriously, it is that good.
As much as I'd love to gush about what Salyards did with the larger storyline and the overall mythology, just about anything I could say here would constitute a spoiler. What I will say is that a lot happens in this book, and it all has significant consequences for our band of Jackals. Everything that was set up in the first two books comes to a head here, with all the dangling plot threads getting tied off - even if some of those knots are deliberately ragged and loose. This is not one of those perfectly tidy, happily-ever-after finales, and anybody who was expecting different clearly hasn't been paying attention. Bloodsounder's Arc was never about completing a quest, saving the world, or succeeding on some epic scale. It was always the story of one man, Captain Braylar Killcoin, as seen through the eyes of his company scribe, Arki (Arkamandos).
I'm not sure I've encountered any character the last decade or so who grows and evolves as much as Arki. As character arcs go, his is so steady, so consistent, and so entirely grounded that you don't really appreciate how far he's come until you look back on the saga as a whole. Arki is the epitome of the average man. There are no hidden secrets or revelations behind him, and no cumbersome prophecies or destinies hanging over him. He's just a lowly scribe, trying to fit in, and working hard to be accepted by a band of rugged Syldoon warriors. Don't get me wrong, he has some significant moments in this final chapter - some worth cheering about, and others cringe worthy - but Salyards never tries to break him or to make him more than he was ever mean to be.
As for Braylar, his character arc was always set up to be that of the tragic hero, and he never shies away from what needs to be done. At the end of the day, even if he has some uncomfortable family issues, and even if he does wield a cursed flair, he is just another soldier. He's not out for gold or glory, and he's not looking to claim a throne or save a word. Braylar is there to do his job, and help return his deposed emperor to power. As we discover here, he doesn't necessarily have to like the man or agree with his methods to do the job. His is not a story about ideals, but one of duty. There's a lot in this final chapter than challenges our sense of wrong and right, and much that makes us question whether the end can ever justify the means, but Braylar remains the heroic figure around which the story turns.
Chains of the Heretic takes us beyond the shimmering Godveil (and back); reveals the origins of the cursed Bloodsounder; exposes the roots of Sofjian's loathing for her brother; delves deep into the treacheries of the Syldoon Empire; kills off some characters; damages others; and makes us question every motive. It has its moments of black humor, and even a few fleeting moments of happiness, but by and large it is a dark and tragic tale. The action reaches a crescendo here, with some of the biggest battles (and biggest foes) we've seen yet. Salyards takes us across the world, and even if he leaves us cold and weary amid the carnage, we're still anxious for the next campaign . . . should we be so lucky to return to his world.
Hardcover, 524 pages
Expected publication: February 16th 2016 by Night Shade Books
Scourge of the Betrayer is one of those rare books. A novel that takes the familiar tropes of a particular genre, tweaks them ever so slightly until you (a long time reader) find that your expectations of that genre have been suddenly raised to a new level.
And how did Jeff Salyards do that, you ask?
Well, mainly, he did it by refusing to be confined by the familiar, formulaic pattern of grimdark fantasy. Where most “grims” cover their pages with equal parts gore-coated combat, cynical characters, sexual situations, harsh language, and gritty worlds, Scourge embraces those elements but does not stop with them, adding a layer of realism and attention to detail that elevates this standard “grim” story into a realistic, tour-de-force of fantasy. Indeed, Mr. Salyards creates a world where armor actually does protect you in combat. Where there are no “Chosen Ones” or godlike heroes or all-powerful villains. Where magic is present but not scattered around like motes of dust. Where your favorite character might appear as a “good guy” one moment only to seem a “bad guy” the next. And where anyone, ANYONE can die if plans do not work out or a blow is mistimed or too many foes appear. All things that might sound like normal grim but are so much more in this story.
Mr. Salyards throws readers into his realistic grimdark world from the first page; the first person narrator of the tale being a young man named Arkamandos (or Arki for short.) This youth has just been hired by Captain Braylar Killcoin, leader of a band of Syldoon soldiers, to be their company’s scribe. And while Arki is very wary of his new employers (They are the fiercest, most vicious soldiers in the world), he explains his reason for joining up with them as:
I had no family, or none that had claimed me as such for years, and no friendships of any lasting duration. The promise of being part of something larger than my life—which admittedly, up to this point hadn’t exactly been consequential or noteworthy—was exciting, even if my involvement was restricted to observing and recording. At least it would presumably be something worth setting to parchment for once. And there was no denying the draw to that.
This desire to be part of a grand, epic adventure is exactly why Arki is the perfect narrator for the story that follows, for he is in the exact same shoes as his audience: a spectator completely in the dark as to what is actually going on. For there doesn’t seem to be any dark lord to defeat here or epic war to wage or apocalyptic event to stop – well, not that Arki knows about anyway. Instead, Captain Braylar and his men have their own secret agenda; a plan that they have no intention of willingly sharing with anyone. And so, Arki is left to listen to the conversation of his employers, gather clues as to their intentions, and piece together theories about their motives, goals, and true aims. All the while never knowing if his guesses are anywhere close to accurate.
And as Arki leads readers along on this grand adventure to discover the why of it all, Mr. Salyards carefully uses the interactions between the young scribe and the other characters to slowly sculp vibrant people, not grimdark caricatures of humanity, but real, living, breathing people who gradually come into focus. Don’t be surprised when there are not any long soliloquies where the characters intentionally reveal their inner demons or hidden desires or troubled past to you, because Mr. Salyard does not spoon feed anyone. Instead, he forces you to live day to day along with Arki, reading his interpretations of his traveling companions, his beliefs about their personalities, and his assessment of their actions, making you use the youth’s observations to form your own opinions about these three-dimensional people who surround him.
While this gradual development of plot and characters could have ruined the pacing of the story, it did not do so. For even though the beginning is slow and a tad confusing, Mr. Salyards deftly places clues throughout the narrative, stringing a reader along. Each suspected insight into Braylar’s plans building a little more excitement, each small revelation about his history adding a touch more drama to the tale until you can’t wait to turn the page, hoping to find the next part of the puzzle that Mr. Salyards has so expertly hidden from view.
But this is a grimdark, so where is the bloody combat, you ask?
Oh, it is here. Braylar is a man of action, willing to trade a few humorous slurs with his opponent before wielding his exotic flail to crush their skulls, and his Syldoon are constantly in the thick of the action. Blood and gore coat the pages, especially after the halfway point of the book, with the fighting coming fast and furious (though Arki presents it more from the point of view of a witness than a participant), and always Mr. Salyards deftly crafts these fights with utmost realism. No overpowered godlike warriors here. Even the most experienced fighter only one step away from getting struck down in battle. A fact that makes the fights even more gripping, as you wonder if anyone is safe from the grim reaper in this world.
As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and there are lots of further things I’d like to say about the story, but I can’t – to do so would reveal too many spoilers and ruin the fun for you. Perhaps it will suffice for me to write that Scourge of the Betrayer took everything that I love about grimdark, added in a touch of realism, and coupled those things with a slow-developing, character-driven story that made me constantly strive to figure out what was going on. It is quite simply a great fantasy read.
So, with all that being said, I highly recommend this one to grimdark fans, lovers of character-driven stories, fantasy fans, and all those that just adore tales that make you think. Have fun reading!
Veil of the Deserters is everything I was looking for in the highly anticipated follow-up to Scourge of the Betrayer. What Jeff Salyards has crafted here is a rare sequel that actually manages to outdo the first. The stakes here are bigger (and clearer), the world-building is taken to a whole new level, and the characters really come alive. Paced exceptionally well throughout, it also has the kind of killer climax that manages to completely satisfy, while still leaving the reader desperate for more.
In wrapping up my review of Scourge of the Betrayer, the opening book inBloodsounder's Arc, I said:
Well, you can forget what I said about reserving judgement, and stop waiting to know more. Salyards gives us answers aplenty here, lifts the veil on the larger story, and pulls everything together in a novel that feels complete in every way. With the introduction of his sister, Soffjian, we not only learn more about who Captain Braylar is, but we begin to understand where he comes from, and what it means to be Syldoon. Their shared back-story is revealed throughout the novel, a few pieces at a time, and proves to be as complex as it is tragic. Soffjian is an interesting character in her own right, but it's in her role alongside Skeelana in exposing the reader to the secrets of Memoridon magic where she really excels.
Arki really comes into his own here, stepping up as a man, a fighter, and as a force to be reckoned with in the army. He still has a tendency to stammer and draw out his explanations, but he also has learned to stand up for himself against Braylar and the rest of the Syldoon. He even begins to develop something of a tentative friendship with Vendurro, which adds a whole new angle to the story, particularly in revealing a more human side to the old soldier. Most importantly, though, we learn the Captain's true purpose in recruiting a scribe, and see him play a crucial role in the latter half of the book.
There are some moments of morbid, gallows style humor to the tale that play well against the darkness of Captain Braylar's affliction, with his addiction to Bloodsounder getting worse by the page. It's that addiction which leads to a well-intentioned act of disobedience by Vendurro, Hewspear, and Mulldoos, and that simple decision to heal the Captain that proves to have significant repercussions in the story's final act. There's also some softer moments throughout the story, with friendships and the tease of a relationship rounding out what we already know of the Syldoon.
It's with the revelations of Memoridon magic and overall world-building where Veil of the Deserters takes the biggest steps in escalating this second installment to a new level. We get to see more of the wider world, including Sunwrack - home to the Syldoon - and learn about the deeper politics involved not just between nations, but between Syldoon Towers. It's that world-building that brings about the biggest twists in the story, and which sets up a climax that delivers more than enough 'wow' to make up for the more subtle end to the first book. It's an entirely satisfying conclusion, one that pulls together all the key plot threads in the novel, and which provides a stunning cliffhanger - physically and emotionally - for the next book.
Not that the first book needs to be redeemed or anything of the sort, but Veil of the Deserters puts that story arc into a larger context, and opens up the larger tale that Salyards has set out to tell. Definitely one of the strongest middle installments I've read in a very long time, and just an overall fantastic read. Highly recommended, especially to those who (like myself) came away from the first book wanting something more.