Monday, 16 March 2015

Book Review | Sword of the North by Luke Scull

Five centuries ago, the greatest wizards of the north challenged the gods. The mages stormed the heavens, stole immortality from the divine and cast them down. Now the corpses of the fallen pantheon are a poison, leaking wild magic that births abominations across the land. With the barriers between the realms failing, the world faces apocalypse. The bards name this the Age of Ruin, a time in desperate need of heroes. But heroes are in short supply. The only candidates—a motley company at best—are scattered to the four winds.

Former rebel Sasha has now become an unwilling envoy between the powerful. Eremul the Halfmage languishes in disgrace, his warnings of approaching war falling on deaf ears. Yllandris, sorceress of the High Fangs, servant to a demon lord, has become that which she most despises. Davarus Cole, assassin of the immortal, lies on the brink of death. The legendary champion Brodar Kayne carves a bloody path towards his enemy of old in search of the woman he thought dead...


In "the five hundred and first year of the Age of Ruin," the line between good and evil is so diminished that most are convinced it no longer exists. It's every man for himself, and every woman as well, whether he hails from filthy Dorminia or she from lavish Thelassa. To wit, heroes and villains are artifacts of the past; fossils of a sort, all frail and friable... which is damn near a definition of the way Brodar Kayne has been feeling recently.

The so-called Sword of the North "had killed more demonkin than he could count, dire wolves and trolls by the dozen. Even a giant that had wandered down from the Spin the autumn just past." He knows, though, that his monster-slaying days are numbered. The years have taken their toll, of course; he's grown "old and weak: that was the truth." Yet as inescapable as his increasing weakness is, Kayne thinks he has one last mission in him:
A thousand or more miles away, the wife he had until recently thought dead waited for him. He would find Mhaira; put things right between him and his son if he could. Then he and the Shaman would have their reckoning. 
After two long years, the Sword of the North was coming home.
Coming home to "scour the land in a storm of blood and fire," perhaps? Well... we'll see. At the very least he won't be coming home alone:
The grim Highlander never showed any sign of weakness, would rather walk across hot coals than admit to feeling sympathy. But the Wolf knew all about promises. His word was his bond, and depending on where a man stood it could either be a death sentence or the greatest gift. He might be the angriest, surliest son of a bitch Kayne had ever known, a fearless warrior seemingly without peer, but Jerek was also the truest friend anyone could wish for.
Theirs is a friendship readers took as read in The Grim Company. At most they were partners with a past—a past explored to excellent effect in this text. Indeed, the bond between these brothers in blood is at the very centre of Luke Scull's sequel, for as Kayne and Jerek face off against any number of fearsome creatures and creepy people in the present day part of the narrative, in flashback, we hear where the pair came from, how they eventually met, and learn, at the last, of the lie underlying their lives: a lie explosively exposed in Sword of the North, naturally.

But for the foreseeable at least, Kayne and Jerek can continue to count one another. Unfortunately, their other companions have scattered in the weeks between The Grim Company's last act and the start of its successor. Ostensibly, the saboteur Sasha has gone into service in Thelassa with her ambitious sister Ambryl, however her heart's hardly in it. When she's not preoccupied crying over Cole, she's snorting hashka, or searching for more hashka to snort.

Cole himself has had a tough time of it. He isn't dead, as Sasha suspects, but his "whole world had been shattered [and] everything he believed in revealed to be lies. The fire that once burned so brightly within him was gone forever. The world was a cold and empty place." Least, it is until he gets himself "god-touched" whilst mining the Blight. Could Cole really be the hero the people need? Or could that calling fall to Eremul the Halfmage?

In all honesty... probably not, no. For one thing, he's still in Dorminia. For another, he's been stripped of his position on the Council, which is too busy thinking about Kings—"males with their armies and their bluster and their perversions," eh?—to heed our miserable magician's warnings about the White Lady.

That's the same sinister mistress Sasha's sister is in the thrall of, and the actual opposing force our company must inevitably contend with—if not in Sword of the North then come the conclusion of Scull's action-packed fantasy saga. Which brings me to this book's biggest issue, namely its nature: it's neither a beginning nor an ending, and accordingly, it offers none of the associated satisfactions.

To his credit, Scull does everything in his power to keep Sword of the North a speedy read, treating us to short chapters featuring fast fights, a proper proliferation of POVs and a bunch of barbed banter, but there's no getting away from the fact that it feels from first to last like the middle of a trilogy. Everyone is going somewhere but hardly anyone gets anywhere; everyone is doing something but hardly anyone achieves anything; and then it ends.

In the interim, Sword of the North is essentially directionless. The plot is altogether paltry, and the character development largely lacking. Scull embellishes Kayne and Jerek's friendship well, but the other members of the company—Sasha and Cole and the Halfmage—simply switch between extremes of feeling, describing right angles rather than arcs.

The text's setting isn't especially memorably rendered either. Most of the action takes place in Thelassa, "a delicate jewel perched on the east coast of the Broken Sea" which is clean where Dorminia was dirty, and ordered where The Grim Company's capital was chaotic. It's different, I do declare, but simplistically so, such that Thelassa doesn't ever come to life like a city in its own right might.

At the end of the day, I'm sorry to say Sword of the North doesn't deliver on enough of its predecessor's promises for me to recommend it without real reservations. Its component parts are all problematic; even taken together, they serve precious little purpose except to delay the coming confrontation, which Scull seems to be saving for Dead Man's Steel in 2016. So: a middle volume with a middle volume's problems. It doesn't advance much of anything, but if you enjoyed The Grim Company, as I did, more of the same awaits in Sword of the North—for better or for worse.


Sword of the North
by Luke Scull

UK Publication: March 2015, Head of Zeus
US Publication: May 2015, Roc

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