Friday, 25 May 2012

Book Review | Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies-or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon's dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he's about to find out for himself.

Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men's enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he's killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe... and Arki might be next. Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe.

As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience! A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire — and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man's soul. 

"All empires crumble. All borders change. All kingdoms die. Where I'm taking you, you'll witness the death of a body politic, the expiration of a way of life, the redrawing of a map. Something singular and priceless. So put away your bleak looks and let's eat some of Hobbins' slop."

Well, since you promise so much, Captain Killcoin, and put it so... so perfectly pointedly — alright. Let's.

Scourge of the Betrayer is a lot like that, in fact. That is to say promising, and remarkably well put, specifically but not solely because it comes from a first-time author. I don't know that it makes for an especially satisfying experience on its own, but in some senses it's a great success nevertheless: for one thing, Scourge of the Betrayer serves to lay the foundation for a potentially fascinating fantasy narrative that could straddle the chasm between The First Law and The Lies of Locke Lamora... but never mind that. My main takeaway was that Jeff Salyards is one to watch. Like a hawk. Or perhaps a chronicler.

Such as Arkamondos, say. Arki for short — though most folks wholly ignore him, so the needfulness of this particular diminutive is debatable at best. In any case, Arki is a unremarkable scribe lacking almost all of the qualities one expects from a fantasy protagonist; he's basically a blank slate upon which his clients can chisel out their exploits. At the outset of Scourge of the Betrayer, he's hired by the leader of a band of fearsome Syldoon soldiers to tell the tale of their guerrilla revolution from the ground on up, beginning with a bawdy barroom brawl and a couple thwarted conquests.
"The Syldoon really did seem to have an unhealthy fixation on all things whorish. Their breed of camaraderie was crude, course, callous, and whatever other alliterative pejorative I could summon. Cruel? Perhaps. But there was another quality there as well. Or lack of one. There was no preening or pretension at the table. Their rough humour made no excuses for itself."
Which, for a while, is all well and good - and another in a long line of examples of Salyard's observational, conversational flair - but Scourge of the Betrayer goes on and on along these lines, beating around the proverbial bush for much too long, such that it feels a far cry from what Arki (and I) had imagined of this supposedly epic adventure. Truth be told, the latest of Night Shade's new voices takes such an age to get his house in order that halfway through the whole, I was ready to dismiss this debut as a trifle — which is to say delicious, yes, but not exactly nutritious.

Thankfully, Scourge of the Betrayer isn't all empty calories. There are rumblings of intrigue in the second act, and in the third, when our company arrives at Alespell, some sustained action, at last!

In the interim, a couple of characters start to stand out from the crowd. And indeed, it's quite the crowd: alongside Akri and Captain Killcoin - Braylar to his mates - count Mulldoos, Hewspear, Lloi, Tomner, Vendurro, Glesswik, and I don't know how many others. Of the lot, Lloi - a flea-bitten outcast from the darkly magical Memoridons, with half a hand and a winningly dismissive way about her - Lloi surely steals the show, but Braylar is interesting from the get-go, and Arki, ever easy-does-it, gets there eventually.

So Salyard's character-building is strong. World-building, however, doesn't seem to be his bag. Excepting one wagon and Three Casks - that is, the inn where Scourge of the Betrayer kicks off, or should do - the only setting we get a sense of is Alespell... and even then.

I can't help but think a better idea of place and space would have added depth and texture to a narrative in need of some firmer foundation, but of course, world-building isn't a requirement, it's a choice. And Salyards is smart enough to make a running joke of his: Arki is desperate to take in some local colour by way of the celebrations raging in Alespell, but Braylar keeps delaying his day at the fair. "Don't fear," he soothes. "You shall have your opportunity to explore [..] in due time, but not just yet."

Maybe next time! I certainly hope so. And understand this: despite my initial issues, I'll be sticking with this series, because by the end, the pieces are finally in place. Never mind that they aren't necessarily the pieces you'd expected to see — that's half the fun. Scourge of the Betrayer may promise great gravitas, but what it delivers is insidiousness, in quantity and quality. As Arki observes, "There was nothing large or grand about the things happening here. They were small and shadowy, punitive and bloody."

Ultimately, Scourge of the Betrayer seems to be going nowhere, and slowly, for far too long for me to recommend it without certain related reservations, but it makes up a lot of lost ground in its non-stop last act, and in the interim, Salyard's witty, wanton dialogue-driven narrative is entertaining enough - just - to keep one's interest from flagging. Considering how much better Scourge of the Betrayer gets as it goes on, Bloodsounder's Arc stands to go from strength to strength as a series.

I need not add that I'll be keeping a close eye on Jeff Salyards from here on out. If you're at all interested in low fantasy à la Cook and Abercrombie, you would be well advised to do likewise.


Scourge of the Betrayer
by Jeff Salyards

US Publication: May 2012, Night Shade Books

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  1. Our blogs are twins today! I posted my review of SCOURGE today as well. Like you I enjoyed it, but maybe a bit more than you did. While there wasn't a ton of world building going on, I thought Salyards did a great job of setting scenes and making the immediate settings come to life.

    Very solid debut though, and I'll definitely be looking forward to the next volume in the series.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read and review the book. I'm glad I didn't totally lose you and you'll be around for Book Two. :)