If I were a scribe who had spent my life dealing with stories from the dullest people in the world would I have taken the opportunity? Would I have dropped what I was doing and taken commission from a band of warriors? Syldoon warriors, men rumored to be the nastiest of nasty; would I have willingly gone with them with no direction and no assurances of what was to come?
Damn right I would.
This is a book that deals with the smaller scale by design. There is no epic war going on, no big bad end of the world foreseen, hell there isn’t even an army. Just a band of soldiers and their newly hired scribe. We walk into the story at about the same point their new scribe Arkamandos does. The soldiers are hiding something, have a destination in mind, and are content to bicker among themselves until their captain tells them to head out. Arki can only listen in, record, and wonder what it is he is making a transcript of.
What makes this book click is the character interactions. A story with a tight cast will live and die by this and here we have a story that thrived. We get a great look into each character early on as they bicker and taunt each other within the bar. W learn about them naturally, through Arki’s eyes and ears, as they drift in and out of the picture. Never do we gain a complete picture because we have no omniscient narrator to help us cheat. The captain shows quite a bit of kindness early on to his new scribe; do we trust it? He also is hiding quite a bit; starting with his mysterious flail that he stops others from talking about. Lloi is another enigma for Arki to discover. She is plenty kind to him, so why are even the toughest of the group fearful of her?
The writing is more intimate that fantasy readers are probably used to. Each and every one of Arki’s thoughts are vivid; especially his humiliations. An early scene where he tries to control his lust and fight his shame while pretending sleep during another’s sexual encounter is as intimate and awkward as could be expected; and provided so much insight into the man we were dealing with in such a short scene. More than any other it showed us how over his head the scribe may be, without having anything to do with the actual task.
The plotting of this book will either work for a reader or not. The early going seems like aimless traveling, not even a hint at a larger purpose is given. The group is often split and the story relies on small conversations about nothing to move along. But it all builds our knowledge of the land and the company. There is action, again fairly unique with its small scale battles where numbers top out in the twenties, at most. And slowly but surely we, like our new favorite scribe, start to put the pieces together. So by the time the captain seems to reveal his plan a smart reader will see that there is more coming and finally have the details needed to search for relevant clues.
Of course this book gets compared to The Black Company, and it should be. But while Cook’s awesome books had some pretty high stakes (with the company right in the middle of everything), Salyards’ story is different. The high stakes in his story is all character based; we naturally feel what Arki feels for each character (and yes, he starts to feel for some of his new companions). I will say this book hit me with a surprise death that mattered, something very few books have been able to do since I first read GRRM.
Hey Jeff, thanks for reminding me that I still had not read your book! Especially as we seem to be right in time for the next one to come out. I really enjoyed it.
Copy for review provided by author’s publicist.