BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Adventurers Egil and Nix novel face off against a mobilized Thieves Guild with a deadly agenda.
PROS: High quality action scenes; excellent chemistry between the main characters; real choices with real consequences; immensely entertaining; excellent audiobook narration.
CONS: Some more specifics on one of the main characters would help drive the themes of the novel even more strongly.
BOTTOM LINE: This second Egil and Nix novel improves upon the first.
Thieves Guilds are nothing but trouble. Even when they aren’t sucking the lifeblood of a city like Dur Follin, they are scheming amongst themselves for status. When a coup against the head of the Thieves Guild leaves their friend a eyewitness to be eliminated, adventurers Egil and Nix find themselves wrapped up yet again in matters way above their heads. Taking on an entire Thieves Guild? That’s going to be the easy part. The soul-sucking magical alleyway in Dur Follin and the deadly swamp down river? Now those are going to be the real problems for the duo.
A Discourse in Steel is the second novel from Paul S. Kemp, following some months after the events of The Hammer and the Blade, featuring Egil and Nix, a pair of sometimes-for-hire adveturers. One is a crackerjack thief with just enough magical talent and training to use magical items to good effect; the other is a priest of The Momentary God, but that does not keep him from using a pair of hammers with prodigious strength. Together they get into all sorts of adventure and trouble. Even when they seemingly try to put down their sword and hammers and give up adventuring, trouble finds them.
The worldbuilding in A Discourse in Steel is very much in the mold of a sword and sorcery novel, but we get buckets of it this time out. Even more of the action is set in Dur Follin as compared to The Hammer and the Blade, and we get a lot more about how the city is laid out, its landmarks and places to visit (and definitely places to avoid at all costs). In addition to the city, we get glimpses and intimations into the history of the region as well as hints of places far from the city’s gates. (In time, I hope that Dur Follin will become as fleshed out as Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, and while it is too much a sword and sorcery series to hope for a map, I do hope we do see one someday.) Even the small things, like the unusual nature of The Thieves Guild, their origin, nature and how they mark their membership are all the little details that together provide a rich universe that, since I listened to the audiobook, gave me plenty of ‘driveway moments’.
The action sequences are where Kemp really shines, though. In comparison to the high art of the swordplay in, say, Among Thieves, the fighting in Kemp’s novels tends toward the punchier and grittier cinematic. Be it a fiery standoff trying to protect The Slick Tunnel, or daring to break into the Thieves Guild itself, the action — especially in audiobook form — entertains and moves the story along without ever getting monotonous. There are also some truly excellent set pieces throughout the book. Even better: the action sequences are punctuated by the dialogue and character interactions between Egil and Nix that mark them as sometimes vitriolic best friends. I do hope someday that Kemp writes an “Ill Met in Dur Follin” story that tells us just how these two unlikely friends first met and bonded.
And with that allusion to to the obvious influence of Fritz Leiber, Kemp is building up the story of Egil and Nix, their stories and their world, piece by piece. Novels make for larger, less frequent pieces to the puzzle than the short story format, but the characters and their world have grown since the beginning of The Hammer and the Blade. Even as the heroes grow and change and more of the world is revealed, more mysteries, secrets and possibilities do as well. The ending of the novel leaves readers with several elements that could very well rear show up again in the heroes’ future. With much of the map still blank, I am interested in seeing more of the world through the eyes of these two characters and their friends and allies.
As of the time of the writing of this review, Kemp had announced he had sold two additional Egil and Nix novels, but to the larger Del Rey Spectra instead of Angry Robot. Clearly the author is going places and big things are in store for the pair. Authors like Kemp are at the forefront of the current renaissance of Sword and Sorcery, and I couldn’t be happier about it.