As the concluding chapter of Bloodsounder’s Arc, Chains of the Heretic is a rousing and fitting finale; one which thunders out of the gate, determined to shed light upon every shadowy mystery and to resolve every plot line. This journey of Arki from naive scribe to trusted member of Captain Killcoin’s Syldoon company ending the only way it could: with both tears and optimism for a new beginning. But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself; let me set the stage for this grimdark lovers delight.
Fans of this series recall how Scourge of the Betrayer set the table; Mr. Salyard’s introducing young Arkamandos (Arki for short) desperate to belong to an epic endeavor, some notable enterprise worth chronicling. And imaging he has found such with the rough and rugged Captain Killcoin, he eagerly sets off into the Kingdom of Anjuria upon an unknown mission, quickly finding himself immersed in political machinations, eye-opening violence, and legendary magical mysteries; his only desire to survive it all.
In Veil of the Deserters , the Syldoon mission in Anjuria comes to a dramatic climax, as the Captain’s estranged sister, Soffjian, arrives, recalling him to the capital upon the orders of Emperor Cynead. This summons sets off a chain of events which leads Arki deeper into the strange world of Captain Killcoin; his childhood, his rift with his memory witch sister, the exotic and dangerous world of the Syldoon Empire, and the mystery of the Captain’s unholy flail. Each of these facets of the Captain’s life shifting and merging into a dynamic and mesmerizing grimdark adventure, which triumphs in its realistic characters, true-to-life combat, and believable situations.
But now, in Chains of the Heretic, it must all end. Arki’s time with Captain Killcoin, Soffjian, and all the other Slydoon winding down. The quest to uncover the truth behind Bloodsounder’s magic, its true use, and the key to freeing the Captain from its unholy influence still at the forefront, even as the group finds itself fleeing from the city of Sunwrack, determined to find deposed Emperor Thumarr and aid in his revolution; their every move thwarted by imperial troops, who continue to drive Killcoin’s motley group toward the Godveil, where they will be trapped.
But there is one last, desperate hope. The cryptic lore discovered by Arki in moldy tomes pointing to a possible use for Bloodsounder. At least, the young scribe believes so — if he can convince Captain Killcoin to attempt it. But there is no promise it will work, and even if it does, Arki and his comrades might find themselves in even worse straits than facing their Syldoon enemies, because who can say what lies on the other side of the Godveil!
First off, I have to say this was a great book. A really amazing grimdark. Especially if you found the first two installments of the trilogy to your liking, because — likeScourge of the Betrayer and even more so Veil of the Deserters —Chains surrounds itself in the realistic trappings of a magical, medieval world, focuses on the people involved in the tale, and actually sets out to tell their stories without any shortcuts or deus ex machina. While it isn’t historical fantasy by any stretch, the loving details and accurate portrayals of the world and the people makes it seem so real that at times it will seem like you could hop a plane and be there in a few hours to tour the ruins. And for me, being able to fully immerse myself in a fantasy and believe it is real is the first step to falling in love with the narrative.
The second, necessary element of a great fantasy is the characters. No worries there, because Bloodsounder’s Arc has always had those.
Arki is the easy to empathize with youth, caught up in events way over his head, but willing to learn, fight to survive and, perhaps, find his place among his companions. He isn’t an instantaneous god-like hero by any stretch of the definition, but rather a real person whom you grow to like and pull for.
Captain Braylar Killcoin is so many things: the foul-mouthed soldier (Who can forget his constant “honey-cock” insults to one enemy), the rough but complex man (His past reveals so much), the harsh but fair mentor (Arki learns many hard lessons from him), and the dedicated soldier (The ending of this trilogy makes it very clear.) Each side of him turning Braylar from a simple caricature into a fully-rounded man, whom you find yourself frustrated by but always willing to forgive.
Soffjian is Braylar’s feminine side. She is still harsh, sharp as a honed blade, determined to the point of stubbornness, and unforgiving of anyone’s weaknesses, but her interactions with Arki and her brother show multiple facets of her personality. Little tidbits of humanity and her long suffering for what she is (A memory witch remember) slowly bubbling to the surface, making her a very interesting character to read about.
There are many more, but those are the big three in my eyes, and they are definitely the stars of the show.
Lastly, a story must have a compelling plot which actually pays off in the end. Lord of the Rings is the epitome of this for me personally. Tolkien taking his hobbits from their comfortable hobbit holes through the horrors of war and to fiery Mount Doom before bringing them home again — changed forever by their journey. Other series have attempted to emulate the same formula, but failed in my opinion (*Cough* The Dark Tower by Stephen King *Cough*) because their conclusions resolved nothing. But with Chains of the Heretic, Mr. Salyards hits the mark closer to Return of the King than that other unnamed (wink) series, because all the plot lines in Bloodsounder’s Arc are basically resolved here, converging together into a conclusion which not only nicely wraps up the story but acknowledges that this is merely the beginning. The start of a whole new chapter in not only Arki’s life but the other surviving characters as well, which is so realistic since life is exactly like that.
I give Chains of the Heretic and Bloodsounder’s Arc my highest recommendations; it really is one of my favorite grimdark fantasy series. While I could nitpick about small details in the narrative or bitch about this resolution or that one, I chose not to do so, because this novel should be appreciated for all the things it did so well, and I look forward to seeing Arki and friends again in the future and growing to know them again.
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