BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: A captured would-be crusader, a gladiator-turned-slave, and a slave under deep cover struggle to survive in a fantasy city under threat from within and without.
PROS: A welcome return to a new area of Sprunk’s world; raises of the stakes from previous novels; interesting magic systems; complex socio-political situation.
CONS: The jump up to epic fantasy not always successful in practice; slow start; some character missteps work against the dramatic build-up.
BOTTOM LINE: The first installment of a new new series that overcomes its slow start and ups the entertainment factor.
Crusades, slaves, heresies and a desperate ruler’s fight for power and survival are the meaty matter of Jon Sprunk’s Blood and Iron, first in his new Black Earth series. Set in the same world as the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son and its sequels), Blood and Iron represents a significant increase in scale and stakes.
The major viewpoint characters are three. First is Horace Delarosa, a carpenter from the Western realm of Arnos who finds himself on a ship east headed on a crusade against the distant Akeshian Empire. A shipwreck makes him a prisoner and a slave. However, it is an unexpected manifesting talent for the local sorcery, something alien to him, that makes Horace something worse: a target and an asset to be controlled, both by the Queen that needs his power to survive, and by those who would seek to depose her. The story of his fall and rise makes up the bulk of the story and the majority of the action.
Jirom, on the other hand, is used to a harsh life. An ex-mercenary and ex-gladiator, by turns he, too, winds up in the slave caravan and is there when Horace’s abilities suddenly emerge. Such a man as Horace, Jirom might follow, even love. Or at least lust for.
It is not until we reach the city of Erugash that we truly meet our third major viewpoint character, Alyra. Alyra is ostensibly a trusted servant in Queen Byleth‘s court. However, as she is really a spy under deep cover, her loyalties are torn, especially with the advent of Horace on the scene. I am not convinced Jirom’s through line as a character is anywhere near as strong as Horace or Alyra’s (or even Queen Byleth, whose mixture of cruelty, desperation and sympathy makes her fascinatingly complex). It felt like a few steps in Jirom’s story were missing, or not quite as polished as well as the others.
Excellent world building, vivid description and an alluring magic system form the strong tripod that supports Blood and Iron. This is a significantly larger canvas than the author’s previous novels, and he fills it with descriptions and evocations that showcase his skill. The ability to evoke a cruel environment (seen in the latter portion of the Shadow Saga) works here as the cold north is replaced with the beauty and danger of the desert…and the equal beauty and dangers of a royal court under siege. Magic was a mysterious force in the Shadow’s Saga, in keeping with its sword and sorcery chassis. In Blood and Iron, Sprunk takes an allied but different tack. The idea of Horace being a latent sorcerer is not a new idea in fantasy, but it allows the reader to gradually come to understand his abilities, strengths and limitations as a sorcerer. And lest one worries that all of the sword and sorcery would be wiped away, there are other mysterious and magical doings that, even in an epic fantasy, provide that familiar flavor of sword and sorcery.
The slow start does work against the novel, though, making the reader work perhaps a little harder than they might like. The novel ranges from pedantic to plodding in the early going, with occasional bursts of action to somewhat relieve the monotony. Previous experience with Sprunk’s work and confidence in his writing prompted me to continue reading; for readers not so experienced, know that when the action does pick up — especially in the second half — the virtues of Sprunk’s writing come to full flower, making it it worth any effort.
Blood and Iron is not a perfect transition to the epic form. However, once the pieces are in place, the novel is entertaining, exciting, action-packed and allows the author to show off more of his world with more expanded worldbuilding ideas, in terms of politics and the magic system. More importantly, I am well hooked enough into the story of Horace and his precarious place in the Akeshian Empire to look forward to the next volume of the series.