Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards is the first book in the Bloodsounder’s Arc published by Night Shade Books. Betrayer follows the current trend of gritty fantasy. Yet where most novels might nervously toe the line, perhaps giving an apology or two, Betrayer crashes past bellowing curses and skids to a stop somewhere between gruesome and grotesque. While the tone may be crass-- and a frightening number of penis-related insults will be learned-- Betrayer is a wonderful and smartly written book.

Betrayer occupies a niche between military fiction and fantasy. The story is narrated by Arkamondos (Arki), a naive and provincial scribe. Arki is hired by a small company of elite mercenaries, the Syldoon, to chronicle their various shadowy undertakings. Chief among the Syldoon is Captain Braylar Killcoin, whose interaction with Arki forms the bulk of the narrative.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of Betrayer is Salyards’ decision to write the novel from Arki’s point of view. Arki’s naive and provincial personality acts as a buffer between the reader and the more caustic aspects of Braylar and his men. Arki is relatable to the reader whereas the Syldoon are likely, hopefully, not. In this way, Arki draws the reader into the story. Over time, Arki integrates into the Syldoon and pulls the reader in as well. This gradual shift, integrating the reader into such a harsh and foreign setting, is incredibly well done. If it had been poorly handled, it would likely have rendered the book unreadable to many.

Structurally, Betrayer is a very lean book. Salyards keeps a driving pace. The characters are always on the move. Exposition is nigh non-existent, and the focus is kept tightly on the characters. The story is revealed almost exclusively through dialogue and the larger plot unfolds almost grudgingly. World building is kept at a minimum with a few tantalizing hints thrown at the reader. Magic is hardly to be found. All of these elements were smart choices by Salyards and Night Shade Books. By minimizing the world building, Salyards has brought his voice and style to the forefront. The fast pace and short word count provide a dense and engaging read. The world building can wait for later books when the audience is captive to the story.

My favorite aspect of Betrayer is Salyards’ voice. In particular, his ability to develop narrative tension stands out. The Green Sea sequence is a perfect example of Salyards’ skill. The Green Sea is a vast grass prairie, sparsely populated and inhabited by incredibly dangerous fauna. While Arki, Braylar and Lloi transverse a portion of it, Salyards manages to make wide open space in the narrative seem nearly suffocating. While in the Green Sea, Arki’s world is reduced down to a covered wagon. Hidden beneath the waves of grass are dangerous natives and even more dangerous predators. Intermittently, one of these dangers will appear, attacking Braylar and Arki, confining them to their tiny life raft on the endless sea of grass. Arki’s world shrinks even further when Braylar becomes incapacitated during one of these attacks. Now, Arki is alone. He doesn’t know where to go. He is lost.

When Braylar and Ariki finally reach the edge of the Green Sea, to the safety of the forest, I felt unnoticed tension in my shoulders drain away. When that occurred, I laughed at the delicious irony and skill involved in creating that moment. Salyard had managed to invert the usual relationship between the prairie and forest. In Salyards’ world, the endless grass sea and boundless sky were a prison and the forest freedom.

A second notable way Salyards develops tension is through his frequent fight scenes. While such scenes are typically noisy, in Betrayer, they are remarkably silent. Salyards focuses on small sounds, rather than sweeping swords striking armor with a great cacophony. In Betrayer’s fight scenes, the shuffling of feet over dusty ground, the clinking links of a flail, and the gasping of breath predominate. As a result, the fights suddenly become more intimate, more personal, and more tense with this focus on the small sounds. The reader is pulled in close as the narrative frame shrinks. So when a combatant’s death arrives, often in gruesome fashion, it is shocking because it feels so close.

Salyards’ voice is engaging in other ways as well. The dialogue is concise, witty, and cutting. It has to be. The Syldoon are not simple goons. They are highly trained, educated and multi ethnic mercenaries--the pinnacle of the Slydoon Empire’s military. As such, Salyards not only had to find the right balance between the vulgar and cerebral but also account for the various ethnic backgrounds of Braylar’s troop. I think Salyards nails this complicated balance, as failure to do so would have severely crippled the book. The end result is this steady stream of varied and amazing banter between a diverse group of individuals.

There was little I disliked about Betrayer, but my chief complaint deals with the length of the novel. Yes, I know I praised this very fact earlier. However, the one casualty in this brevity that I did not like was the overall story plot. Not until very late in the narrative are a few hints dropped about larger schemes. I found this lack of information frustrating because it made it difficult to place the events of the novel in any sort of context. While this will likely be remedied as the Bloodsounder’s Arc progresses, it does little to help Betrayer.

Scourge of the Betrayer is a great read. But, I would have difficulty giving it a general recommendation. The general tone of Betrayer will be an insurmountable problem for some readers. For the rest, I can easily recommend Betrayer as a unique and enjoyable experience. It was one of my favorite reads of the year. If you do choose to read Scourge of the Betrayer, laugh at the crassness, grimace at the gruesome but don’t forget to appreciate the skill laying under it all.

Memorable Quotes:
"...that this would be unlike any other job I’d done."
"Every time I started to think I’d seen the oddest thing on this journey, I was proven wrong."
"'There are many who curse the plague, but women who survived aren’t among them. There are far more jobs than men can do."
"'Write. You were conscripted to script, yes? Your scriptorium is where you find it. Script.'"
"If this was how history was made, I was a fool to want to be part of it."
Image Source: Night Shade Books
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597804073

2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for reading the book and taking the time to post such a thorough review. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And that the planet didn't implode today.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment and Happy Holidays.

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