Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

[BOOK REVIEW] The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

Genre: Sword and Sorcery
Mass Market Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: June 26, 2012
ISBN-10: 0857662457
ISBN-13: 978-0857662453
Author Website: Paul S. Kemp

Paul S. Kemp’s first all-original series (he has written extensively for Star Wars and Forgotten Realms) stars the (mis)adventures of Egil and Nix – two tomb-robbing fortune-hunters who just want to settle into the quiet life of owning a less-than-savory tavern. But such is not to be. It seems that Egil, self-appointed priest of the dead momentary god Ereben, and Nix, a thief once expelled from their city’s magical conclave, made a mistake. They didn’t know it but their last adventure in the wastes of Afirion, where they confronted and killed a demon, left some demon-worshippers in the lurch. Now Rakon, an acolyte of the dead demon, must scramble to fulfill his end of a devil’s bargain or lose his power. And to do so, Rakon will tap the unique grave-robbing skills of Egil and Nix.

First off, I love the premise. What Kemp has written a story that borrows heavily from Lieber, Howard, and Moorcock. Really, The Hammer and the Blade is an old-school sword and sorcery with new-school sensibility. All of the tropes in the novel, the quest motif, the anti-heroes, the demonic pact and uncouth wizardry are straight out of a 1930s and 40s S&S. There is lots of magic, excellent fight sequences, and hardcore questing. For everyone who has been looking for new sword and sorcery that lives up to the style and content of its progenitors, this is it.

But on the other hand, there is also a modern sensibility to the story. Whereas in many elder sword and sorcery tales, the fair maiden exists mainly to be rescued or ravished, Kemp turns that on its head. Through an application of feminism that occasionally veers into the didactic, Kemp avoids making the female characters mere plot devices. For instance, a few scenes take a woman’s perspective. More obviously, a woman’s right to her body and her mind is the overarching theme of the story. It won’t seem so from first glance, but through the character development of lecherous, self-involved and misogynist Nix into a moral hero. I like very much how Kemp uses the traditional elements of the subgenre for a story with gender equality at its core, a theme and content very unlike the majority of its predecessors.

Strangely, one of the very things I like most about the novel is the root of one of my issues with the novel. I’m rather of two minds about it. While I like that Kemp subverts a classic subgenre to modern morals, I did feel that on occasion his presentation could be a little didactic. For instance, when Nix realizes that his lascivious comments and actions towards the prostitutes in his tavern are a reflection of the actions that enact Hell’s covenant, it is not that Nix’s character changes, but that Kemp is quite clearly implying that any male readers of the novel should follow his example. For Nix the character the change of heart makes sense given the story’s parameters, but when the novel turns outward to wag the finger at the (male) reader, it destroys the effect. I felt that I was being judged and was consequently thrust out of the story’s flow. This is not to say I disagree with Kemp’s conclusions. Far from it. It is merely the methodology that Kemp employs that destroyed the flow of the story. To be fair, it is entirely possible that I am inferring too much from the text and that this reflects my own sensibilities more than that of the story. I’m not sure, but one thing is certain, Kemp is definitely using a subgenre generally classified as paternalistic and chauvinist to present an alternative that still fits within the type in all other ways.

So I didn’t like being preached to. Who does? I did, however, immensely enjoy the novel as a whole. The enigmatic Egil ,who worships a dead god, and the rouge Nix share a lot in common with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Fans of Leiber may find The Hammer and the Blade much to their liking in terms of characters and setting. I also like that although Egil and Nix are forced to accompany the villain, his men become comrades of Egil and Nix and do not bear the brunt of the heroes anger toward Rakon. There even develops camaraderie between Egil and Nix and Rakon’s men. Readers of Kemp’s Erevis Cale stories will find all the characterization that they like about those used again in The Hammer and the Blade. Too, Kemp’s decision to not have two wholly separate plots, one with the villain and one with the heroes, helped destroy the traditional good versus evil barrier common to such stories. By having the plotline develop together as one, (except early on in the novel when establishing character personalities) Kemp kept the old external moral dichotomy out in order to replace it with moral justice dependent on the individual’s own sense of right and wrong.

As a sword and sorcery, The Hammer and the Blade is great. Lots of action, cool magic, pragmatic antiheroes, and fantastic settings make this a must read for the S&S fan. For all my issues with the theme, I really did enjoy the novel a lot. I really want to read lots more stories of Egil and Nix, and absolutely desperate to discover the truth of Egil’s backstory. Kemp is an excellent write of sword and sorcery that understands its tropes so well that he is able to reinvigorate it with new themes that will resonate with modern readers.