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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Emperor's Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

The Emperor’s Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a standalone Warhammer 40K novel published by The Black Library. The Emperor’s Gift does not exist in a vacuum as fellow Black Library writer, Ben Counter, has published more than six novels in a Grey Knight series, also published by The Black Library, which I have yet to read. Dembski-Bowden is a rising star at The Black Library who has made his mark with his unique take on the Ruinous Powers and Chaos Space Marines. Thus, The Emperor’s Gift provides a unique opportunity for fans of Warhammer 40K: a fresh take on the purest and most potent of the Space Marine Chapters, the Grey Knights, by the preeminent writer of the perverse and profane Chapters, the Traitor Legions.

The Emperor’s Gift is told from the point of view of Hyperion, a newly risen Brother of The Grey Knights Chapter. Raw, head-strong and with immense potential, Hyperion struggles to find his place in Squad Castian of the Third Brotherhood. The events of the novel are centered on the build up and aftermath of the First War for Armageddon. Given that this is such a pivotal event in the Warhammer 40K setting, the cast is nearly a who’s who of the 40K setting with Chapter Masters, Inquisition luminaries, Primarchs, Traitor Legions and the Mechanicum all making an appearance at one point or another.

The greatest strength of The Emperor’s Gift is the ease with which Dembski-Bowden humanizes the Grey Knights, the pre-eminent post-humans of the Imperium. Dembski-Bowden does not shy away from the task. Not only does the novel occur entirely from Hyperion’s point of view, it also reveals the inner thoughts of other Marines via the psychic link shared by all Grey Knights. This link is the manifestation of the Grey Knights Brotherhood-- by this means each squad operates as one. What is so great about this is how Dembski-Bowden weaves both the verbal and psychic communication into the dialog. It creates a rich and textured presentation that allows direct insight into the feelings and behaviors of Hyperion’s intimate fraternity.

Dembski-Bowden also humanizes the post-human through Hyperion’s personality quirks. Unlike most of his brothers, Hyperion is fascinated by humans. They represent a link to his past. They are also what reminds him of what he is defending, as the Imperium is a gift from the Emperor to mankind. Through this quirk, Dembski-Bowden is able to create a contrast between humans and Marines that, otherwise, would be cumbersome and intrusive to the narrative. Hyperion’s confusion and curiosity becomes an insight into his character.

Another element of The Emperor’s Gift that I enjoyed was Dembski-Bowden’s voice and vision for Warhammer 40K. I think he nails the sense of brotherhood and struggle that is at the heart of the setting. Pervading the narrative is a sense that the Imperium is beset on all sides-- that it could collapse at any moment. The odds are stacked against humankind. Yet, faith in the Emperor and the brotherhood of Space Marines hold the line. The Emperor’s Gift is peppered with scenes reinforcing this vision. One of my favorites is an exchange between Vasilla and Hyperion:
“‘We Live in the Last Age of Man,’ Vasilla said softly. ‘This millennium hasn’t yet reached half its span, and it’s already the darkest ever faced by humanity. It will be the last one, Hyperion. The last, before everything falls black.’
...‘Mankind will never fall,’ I said again.
She smiled with genuine affection, and touched her hand to my arm. ‘You truly believe that, don’t you?’”
Dembski-Bowden’s voice is refreshing. He successfully captures the baroque post-apocalyptic quality of Warhammer 40K but without the complexity of vocabulary. While there are pros and cons to this, it does provide for a more readable Warhammer 40K novel. It allows the book to gain a rhythm that would otherwise be interrupted by arcane word choices. While I enjoy thumbing a dictionary in search of a new word on occasion, I don’t like doing it constantly. I think Dembski-Bowden finds this balance-- or rather, a balance more in line with my personal preferences.

The weakest aspect of the book is its structure, specifically in the second half. The first half of the book was very successful. In the opening moiety, there is a tight focus on Hyperion and his relationship with Squad Castian and with Inquisitor Jarlsdottyr. However, after events on Armageddon, the narrative becomes muddled and confused. Perhaps this is reflective of Hyperion’s state of mind at the time, but regardless of artistic choice, it isn’t as successful or cohesive as the first half of the novel.

Central to this weakness is a sudden change in course. I would have rather seen the first and second halves of The Emperor’s Gift exist as separate novels. The first half is already an excellent novella, and the climax of the First War of Armageddon is unforgettable. The second half, while problematic, could be an exciting stand alone read with enough room to flesh out the characters and events.

Gone is the focus on the growth of Hyperion and the Grey Knights as a Chapter in the events after the First War of Armageddon. Instead the story becomes about a potential civil war between rival Imperial factions. On one side is an overly zealous Inquisitor, Ghesmei Kysnaros, and on the other is an idealistic Chapter Master of the Space Wolves, Logan Grimnar.

The abrupt introduction of Inquisitor Kysnaros is frustrating because it marginalizes the already interesting Inquisitor Jarlsdottyr. Beyond that, Inquisitor Kysnaros is inserted into the novel at such a late stage that he fails to develop beyond a stereotype. The addition of the Space Wolves to the story is also irritating. Much like my issue with the Inquisitors, it sidelines the earlier focus on the Grey Knights Chapter.

Exacerbating matters is the lack of narrative restraint. Too frequently, Dembski-Bowden introduces major characters and major reveals in the second half of the novel without advancing the story. Instead, the parade of cameos gives the story a flashy, hollow quality. Whether it is Inquisitor Ravenor, Bjorn the Fell-Handed, Logan Grimnar or whole new secret Space Marine chapters, it is simply too much, too fast. In this way I feel Dembski-Bowden is writing too much as a fan, letting his excitement roam too far.

The silver lining is that the events described in the second half of The Emperor’s Gift are pivotal to the Warhammer 40K setting. It is exciting to have this glimpse into the secrets of the Imperium. Within the jumble of the back half of The Emperor’s Gift are a number of memorable scenes, yet they are lacking was a strong thread to tie them together.

Overall, there is a lot to like about The Emperor’s Gift. Dembski-Bowden is exciting to read. I enjoy his take on the world of Warhammer 40K and look forward to reading his other contributions to The Black Library. The Emperor’s Gift is a novel full of big events and big people, and while it may break a little under that burden, it will satisfy fans of the setting. For newcomers, I would recommend starting elsewhere. While flawed in its overall execution, The Emperor’s Gift is successful in capturing the essence of the Grey Knights-- both that which binds them and that which separates them from Mankind. As the Emperor gifted of himself to his Knights, the Knights the Emperor’s gift to Humankind. With them...”’Mankind will never fall.’

Memorable Quotes:
"I'd never seen her hesitate in doubt before, and I found it a strangely compelling sight."
"I was a weapon, not a man, but moments like this always reminded me that I was a weapon born with a soul. It made all the difference."
"'Hush,' she said. 'Have faith, Hyperion. You were made to win wars like this. All of you were'"

Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9781849701891