BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Small town scribe Arkamondos finds himself in way over his head when he accepts a commission from the enigmatic Captain Braylar Killcoin and his rugged band of Syldoon warriors. As the company of battle-hardened killers embarks on a secretive mission at the behest of the Empire, Arki discovers there are far worse things in life than the mundane histories of millers and merchants…
PROS: Black humor, brutality, camaraderie, detailed yet subtle world building, characters worth caring for.
CONS: Length. This is still a satisfying adventure but it is short.
BOTTOM LINE: I read 70 books in 2012 and I consider Scourge of the Betrayer to be both Debut of the Year and Fantasy of the Year.
I read and reviewed Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards for Elitist Book Reviews once this year already. I don’t have time to re-read books, though there are many times I would love to. This should give some clue as to the regard in which I hold Salyards’ debut novel. The first time I read it I put it down every three minutes to say, “Wow.” Note, that’s not a “wow” with an exclamation point, the kind of thing one might express when presented with a hot fudge brownie topped with ice cream and sprinkles. No. This is the sort of “wow” one makes when they discover an author they just know they will follow for the rest of their career. In a relatively brief number of pages, Salyards was capable of wowing me in a way that hasn’t happened since I first read Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. In a year that saw the release of a new Abercrombie novel (and quite a good one at that), Scourge of the Betrayer still managed to earn my vote for Fantasy of the Year. It fought tooth and nail to gain a re-reading, and because I noticed some things that passed my vigilant attention the first time, I decided it also deserved a re-reviewing.
Just a small town scribe, living in a lonely world…Arkamondos, or Arki if you’d prefer, is a naive sort. He has spent his life penning the history of millers and merchants. It’s a safe but dreadfully boring existence. When Arki accepts a commission from Braylar Killcoin, he discovers that there are far worse things than dull. Braylar is a hard man, scarred from battle and haunted by the demons of the past. The Syldoon warriors are no less abrasive. The men under Braylar’s command are brash and vulgar. But they are also bonded by hardship and bloodshed. Among these savages Arki may find the home he has always been denied. He may finally find a story worth writing. If only he can survive…
Arki makes for an ideal narrator as we enter the world that Salyards has crafted. Arki is naive but observant. Through his limited first person perspective we learn about the world and the characters that inhabit it as Arki does. This educated fellow has never traveled farther than necessary. The violence he has witnessed has been strictly reserved to barroom brawling. In this way the world building is organic and elegant in a way that info-dumping isn’t. It just flows, though not always at the high pace. The pacing never bothered me for a moment, but I have seen complaints regarding this so be warned. In a lot of ways Arki is a voyeur. He is an outsider, hired to record the exploits of the Syldoon. Though he engages in some of the action, Arki feels separate from what is going on. From the very beginning this is clear, as Arki becomes an accidental spectator in one of Braylar’s moonlight trysts. It’s a comical scene that hammers home the voyeurism.
The first time reading Scourge of the Betrayer, it surprised me how faceted the character of Braylar Killcoin was. The second time reading Scourge of the Betrayer, it surprised me how many facets I must have overlooked. The Syldoon captain is borderline bipolar. His moods are unpredictable in the extreme. He is as likely to curse you as he is to commend you. He is calculating. He is a talented liar and a skilled combatant. He is quite literally haunted by the victims of his flail. He is one intimidating bastard. He is every bit what one might hope for in a military commander and he would surely hold his own for several rounds in a forum of everyone’s favorite game, “Which fantasy character would win in a fight?” Part of that would be due to the presence of Bloodsounder, Braylar’s wicked flail. Were I to make up an award on the spot for Weapon of the Year, Bloodsounder would win by a long shot.
And if we’re talking about interesting characters it would be a flogging-offense not to mention Lloi, the outcast Grass Dog. Like Arki, Lloi is also an outsider. Mutilated, cast away by her own people, sold into prostitution…Lloi has every right to be bitter regarding her lot in life. And yet, she is not. She is impossibly upbeat – and not in that annoying bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sort of a way. She understands that you have to take life as it comes. Good for good and bad for bad. The friendship that develops between Lloi and Arki is sweet. Lloi is a loyal ally and a keen mind despite her lack of schooling. Here we have a female fantasy character that is not objectified as a man’s plaything, nor is she an Amazonian death machine.
The fellowship of the Syldoon warriors bespeaks a true military unit. The good natured bickering of Glesswick and Vendurro, the way they interrupt and interject during the telling of stories, speaks of a comfortable familiarity. The Syldoon argue and boast, trading barbs and jokes but you can tell the most about them in the manner in which they mourn the fallen. The Syldoon are a family. A family of fearsome alleged baby/virgin/mother eaters.
“But there was nothing large or grand about the things happening here. They were small and shadowy, punitive and bloody, occurring in the middle of one of the busiest centers of trade in the world, and yet unknown to all but a few key players who seemed intent only on deceiving or destroying others. If this was how history was made, I was a fool to want to be part of it.”
Scourge of the Betrayer is set in a pseudo-Medieval European, low-magic world. For the majority, Scourge of the Betrayer is grounded in reality. All the proper details are in place, giving off a very authentic vibe. In a lot of ways it feels almost more like historical fiction than straight up fantasy. There is plenty of grit and grime, the edges are sharp and the ale is poor quality. It’s believable so that when the magic does appear it is not only easy to swallow but blends with the culture. I find magic most appealing in fantasy when it comes with a cost and the price of the limited magic in Scourge of the Betrayer is severely high. It works here for the same reason that it is so effective in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Like most everything in the novel I expect that there is a purpose behind the magic that will be fleshed out as the Bloodsounder’s Arc continues. There are many mysteries that arise over the course of the novel, as Arki pieces it together as he goes. Our scribe is privy to the absolute minimum required information. I look forward to learning more about the Deserter Gods, the Godsveil, Memoridons, and the Syldoon.
The plot is dark and personal, punctuated by terrifying violence, political intrigue, black humor and even moments of surprising tenderness. The dialogue, much like the setting, is appropriately authentic. For a novel that clocks in at 253 pages (paperback), the story is fulfilling – though this is obviously not a standalone adventure. A lot happens over the course of those 253 pages, endearing readers to the characters and offering glimpses of a much, much, much larger world. The action of Scourge of the Betrayer exists on a small scale but there are hints of a large, sweeping conflict to come. And regarding the action? It’s great. Well, great in the brutal dismemberment sense of the word…Much of the combat is observed from a distance, detached but still achingly intimate. Salyards depicts Medieval fighting in a realistic light. None of the characters are ever safe and luck, as much as skill, factors into each engagement.
For all these reasons Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards is my Debut of the Year and Fantasy of the Year. It is also one of the finest debuts I have ever read, instantly converting me into a fan and follower. I must know what is next for Arkamondos and Braylar Killcoin. There are mysteries to explore and babies/virgins/mothers to devour, and only the Syldoon are up to the challenge. Here’s to Jeff Salyards and hoping for a successful sequel as soon as possible. Hear me Jeff? Soon!