I walked into this book not knowing anything about it aside from the cover art, the cover of its sequel, Veil of the Deserter, and the internet whisperings of 'Grimdark.' What I found was a very enjoyable and unique story.
The book opens with our narrator, Arkamondos, a professional scribe, meeting his newest employers, the Syldoon. The Syldoon are no mercenaries like The Black Company, they're more like the Dirty Dozen of a fantasy empire. As Arki is not a warrior and a bit sheltered, he is often horrified and awestruck by the warriors' ways. The Syldoon, who are required to have a chronicler by Empirical decree, make no secret their opinions of the bookish coward in their company.
The setting has a very ancient feel, and we are treated to only glimpses of greater things from the past. I enjoyed that Salyards never infodumps his world history on us, but lets it serve as a backdrop, slowly revealing itself.
Because the novel is part of a larger series, please be warned that it does not wrap up nice and neat by the end. Instead it closes on a hook, much like a chapter close. Fortunately the second book is already out, but the third book is still some time away. Many fantasy readers are used to waiting years between installments, but I always try to warn people of it before they begin that road.
I REALLY LIKED IT
This was a terribly hard review to write. Honestly, this was sooooooo close to falling into my I LOVED IT category, but when I thought back on my reading, I did a lot of skimming.
What I loved most? The Captain and his weapon, Bloodsounder. Sadly, by the time I really came to be interested in Braylar (and saw him as something more than just your standard tough guy), and was introduced to Bloodsounder, I was 40% into the book. Now, this is a short book, so that’s not a lot of reading, but still. If maybe I had gotten a taste of Bloodsounder a bit earlier on, I might’ve had no problem moving this up because I would have been invested sooner. Unfortunately I can’t say why I loved the Captain and Bloodsounder without ruining it for those who’ve not read the book. I will say when I hit that part I sat up straight and said: “Holy crap, that’s awesome!”
And another crazy fun part about this book? The fight scenes. They are done incredibly well. Detailed and riveting. Those moments I couldn’t get enough of, especially when the Captain is involved. Shame there were only two major fights. There was some tension, don’t get me wrong, but it was the actual fight scenes that amazed me.
So what kept me from loving it and what made me skim? Well, the skimming is simple: Too much description for this girl and too much setup. Of course the descriptions were done wonderfully and really set the scenes. They weren’t excessive, but combined with my other reasons for not loving it, they seemed more prominent to me than they probably were. And then there just seemed to be so much introduction and setting up the characters. Sure, the dialog to do so was fun and watching the soldiers interact was entertaining. I just wish it would have been cut down by half.
This book is in first person, which I generally tend to love. The problem is I found the voice of Arki ... I don’t know, boring, maybe? Flat? Distant? Arki’s descriptions of the soldiers, especially the Captain, were so engaging that it made times when he was not with them seem very flat. I’m not sure how else to describe it. Perhaps I’m used to the first person PoV coming across with a slight bit of humor, or dry observations that make the internal processing sessions fun. Since Arki is along as a scribe meant to document the quest in detail, I guess he goes about it a bit more business-like. I will say toward the end I started catching glimpses of a bit of personality, but it really comes down to a bit too late for me.
On a smaller note, be prepared for a few typos here and there. It’s not excessive, but I did notice a few.
Overall, despite my gripes, I’d recommend this to everyone who loves fantasy. I think my issues with it are minimal and a lot of fantasy fans would love this book. The books are pricey (even for the ebook), so be sure to read a fair share of reviews to make sure you’ll enjoy it.
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!