Genre: Fantasy, Military Fantasy, Dark Humor
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
Author Website: Jeff Salyards
In the style of Joe Abercrombie and Glen Cook comes a new dark military fantasy by debut author Jeff Salyards.
Scourge of the Betrayer is the first-person narrative of a naïve scribe hired by a soldierly company of enigmatic Syldoons to chronicle of all their travails. The conceit reminds me, in part, of Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead (later the movie The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas) in which a poet joins a band of Nordic warriors to unearth a mythic enemy. However in Scourge of the Betrayer there is no mythic enemy, only politics and rather seedy politics at that.
As the story opens, that is about all you know of it. There is no long introduction, no enigmatic lead-in that hints at the future destruction of an evil mastermind or the once-only perspective of the villain. None. For Salyards, the story begins with the scribe’s joining of a military operation he knows nothing about, with gruff warriors he knows little of, and a role he took only on only because he needed employment.
This rough-and-ready opening to the narrative sets just the right tone for the novel. Salyards makes no bones about leaving the reader as in the dark as our protagonist. The story slams into full throttle and you the reader better be ready for the roller-coaster ride to follow. Why the Syldoons need a chronicler is unknown, what their goals are is in doubt, and whom they serve is hidden. Arkamondos, a surrogate for the reader as well as character in the story, knows nothing and has as many (or more) questions about the Syldoons than we do. Salyards has effectively and skillfully maneuvered the reader into having to continue reading, if only to discover what on earth this whole story is about. Bit by bit as the plot unfolds, small details and moments of introspection point to the future and interpret the past. We readers are Arkamondos, and his fate is ours even as his fate is tied to the success or failure of the unidentified Syldoon mission.
The true protagonist of the story, the “hero” if you will, is Captain Braylar Killcoin. Leader of the small band of Syldoons, he is secretive and mercurial, at times kind to Arkamondos, at others seemingly cruel and intolerant. When Braylar gives Arkamondos a generous gift while at the same time warning him that failure will cost him his life the reader is forced into a mental double take. Debauchery is coupled with kindness, generosity with violent death and the fierce tug-of-war between them makes Braylar’s character fascinating to read about. In addition to being the leader, Braylar has a secret, one that is sourced in the two-headed flail he carries.
Other characters include the woman Lloi, the one-handed Grass Dog who does not really belong to the company, and several Syldoon soldiers like Hewspear, Glesswik, Vendurro, and Mulldoos. All rough warriors that spend more time drinking and talking about wenches and death than any real fighting. The whole company is away from their homeland on a secret mission that is only slowly revealed to Arkamondos as he proves his worth.
Though it is Braylar’s character that drives the plot, it is Arkamondos who develops within it. Salyards begins by making the reader cling to chronicler through the first person perspective and shared bewilderment. As such, the reader becomes entwined emotionally with Ark, and so as we watch the timid scribe develop into a semi-warrior under the punishing hand of Braylar and the other Syldoons, we feel that Ark’s successes are our own. Salyards has masterfully twinned our experience with Ark’s own, and this is the sort of novel that readers can easily lose themselves in.
That is, if you can stomach the violence. Not for naught did this review begin with comparisons to Glenn Cook and Joe Abercrombie. The story is very violent, with death a constant companion for the characters. There are a significant number of well-written action scenes, with the final battle being both protracted and bloody. So bloody, in fact, that readers not inured to imaginative violence would do well to be wary.
It is also a cruel story. Braylar suffers no fools, not even among his own, and Arkamondos is no exception. To others besides the bewildered scribe Captain Killcoin can be even worse, such as when he steals from a group of pilgrims or lacks emotion when a major character is badly wounded. Where the story calls for it, Salyards kills characters that may have become important or of interest to the reader. Salyards has replicated George R. R. Martin’s penchant for killing our favorites. In so doing, Salyards emphasizes a sort of realism that tries to see the medieval fantasy setting as a place of blood and brutality that plays no favorites.
That is not to say there are not bright spots. There is a certain dark humor to the story, and there is some laughter at Arkamondos’s expense as he tries to learn the life of a warrior. The flow of the story mixes humor and dark “realism” together nicely so that while the story is never funny in a comic sense, there are moments of levity. Not a few of those moments involve the exchange of insults which humanizes the warriors but which may offend some readers. Epithets are common, including various forms of “cunt” to refer to women and each other, as well as the more common swear words. Salyards is not overly liberal with their use, to be sure, but where character or situation calls for it, they do appear.
Scourge of the Betrayer is a heroic story of anti-heroes who live and die by a code of honor. These rough warriors may not have many social graces, but they are men and women of greatness who would die for each other and for their mission. Far from being paladins of righteousness, they are ruthless pragmatists, but they get the job done. I highly recommend you join Arkamondos on his journey with the Syldoons. Perhaps you too will drink the Kool-Aid. Scourge of the Betrayer is an engrossing and bloody action-adventure that leaves me craving the sequel.