BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The ultimate coup sends Arki, Captain Killcoin, and the Syldoon soldiers of Jackal Tower fleeing into the unknown where they will confront their own legends.
PROS: Excellent character progression, unexpected twists and turns, relentless action, bittersweet goodbyes.
CONS: A little more time spent learning about the Deserters would have been welcome and the final battle could have been longer.
BOTTOM LINE: Salyards is among the best and brightest the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre has to offer and Chains of the Heretic silences any debate.
I write this review after a 250 page reading binge to finish Chains of the Heretic: Bloodsounder’s Arc Book Three by Jeff Salyards. Coming in at just over 500 pages this tome dwarves the two previous entries, and rightly so. There’s no filler to be found in the conclusion to the journey Salyards set in motion with Scourge of the Betrayer. It’s a thrilling finale filled with unexpected reversals and constantly raising stakes.
We last left off with Arki, our archivist-narrator, fleeing the infamous Captain Braylar Killcoin and a small company of hardbitten warriors fleeing the Syldoon capital of Sunwrack. Hounded by several much larger forces of Imperial soldiers and unable to ditch the Memoridon memory witches trailing them, the outcasts of the Jackal Tower risk an unprecedented crossing beyond the Godveil…and come face to face with the Deserters of myth.
It would be difficult to write a completely spoiler-free review review and I’ve never been one to do more work than necessary so here’s my one and final warning: Mild spoilers ahead, read at your own risk. If you enjoyed the first two books feel free to go ahead and skip this review altogether because Chains of the Heretic is better than either of those.
A few years ago Jeff Salyards pleasantly surprised me with Scourge of the Betrayer, a very dark and personal dagger punch of a fantasy novel that left me wanting more. Veil of the Deserters, book two, dodged the sophomore slump by continuing to deliver sharp dialogue and sharper action while expanding on the world we caught tantalizing glimpses of during the first go around. Now with Chains of the Heretic Salyards goes even further by crossing over the Godveil, introducing our intrepid heroes to their “gods,” and delighting in some good old fashioned Syldoon politics. But best of all Chains of the Heretic sees our narrator Arki developing in gratifying ways.
Back when I first started this series I wondered if we would ever get to cross the Godveil and encounter the Deserters or if it would remain an enigma. When I found out that’s exactly what Salyards planned to give readers with the final book in the arc I was excited but also hesitant. Apart from the memory magic the series felt rooted in the believable. The characters were flawed, the politics were brutal, and the combat left no winners — only those who lost less. I worried that the inclusion of more mystical aspects might detract from the foundation Salyards built. I needn’t have worried. The Deserters are awesome and far more fearsome and alien than fantasy standard orcs or trolls. We don’t get to learn much of their culture but we do learn some of their history and their connection to the memory magic. We also get to see them in action and they are a force to be reckoned with.
Salyards writes combat without any frills. There is no glory here. The fighting is fast, frenetic, and frightening. Often times luck influences the course of the battles just as much as skill or numbers. Viewing this all through the eyes of Arki has been a highlight of the series for me. Arki is a writer, not a fighter, and he conveys the bowel loosening terror and chaos unlike any other fantasy narrator I’ve read. Up until this point readers have seen the Slydoon involved in small unit action but this time around we get to witness larger scale conflict. There’s a suitably epic final battle that couldn’t have been easy to write given the limitations of the first person narration.
But as exciting and impactful as the action is it’s the characters of Chains of the Heretic that really shine. By now readers have likely become attached to the bipolar Captain Killcoin and his band of merry murderers. Vendurro is a favorite of mine but I unexpectedly found the prickly Lieutenant Mulldoos growing on me as the novel progresses. Arki’s character development is particularly impressive. Arki has come a long way from the naive small town scribe he was at the onset of his journey, for better or worse. He’s not quite as wet behind the ears any longer. He grasps the cold logic of his warrior companions. He can almost hold his own in a fight. He’s not Syldoon but he’s close enough. Reading Chains of the Heretic I felt an odd pride wash over me to see the man that Arki had become.
Salyards wraps up many loose ends, giving readers a degree of closure, but also leaves the door open to continue exploring this intriguing fantasy world should he decide to return to it at a later date. He makes bold decisions, taking some major risks that a lesser author would shy away from, and in return the payoff is massive. Just don’t expect all of your favorite characters to survive Chains of the Heretic — they won’t. But that’s the fun of the Sword & Sorcery isn’t it?