Review: Scourge of the Betrayer
The Sword & Sorcery sub-genre is currently the most important facet of my reading life. This is the sub-genre that got me back into Fantasy after a five year hiatus where I read nothing but Science Fiction. With that in mind, I take the authors and novels of this genre very, very seriously. At first glance SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER by Jeff Salyards (Amazon) failed to catch my eye. I didn’t find the cover immensely appealing (don’t give me that look, we all judge books by their cover) and the synopsis sounded like somewhat standard fantasy fare. At second glance, however, one might notice a quote by an esteemed fantasy author, comparing this novel to the works of Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan. Name dropping of that caliber is the surest way to stroke my curiosity.
With that single blurb, SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER was elevated to Must Read status. This quote has also set the bar almost impossibly high for poor Mr Salyards. Abercrombie and Morgan? Yeah, good luck buddy! Oh, wait…
Small town scribe Arkamondos finds himself in way over his head when he accepts a commission from the enigmatic Captain Braylar Killcoin and his rugged band of Syldoon warriors. As the company of battle hardened killers embarks on a secretive mission at the behest of the Empire, Arki discovers there are far worse things in life than the mundane histories of millers and merchants…
Enter Arkamondos the scribe, more commonly known as Arki. The tale is told from Arki’s first person perspective, putting a less world weary and more naive narrative to the adventures of bunch of professional soldiers. This is the first wise move on Salyards’ part. I’ve read plenty of books about bloody-minded anti-heroes, but few from the point of view of an inexperienced bystander. Arki’s understanding of the world in which he inhabits is limited to his fairly limited travels. This allows readers to jump right into the story with a minimum of world building. What world building can be found is handled deftly. Salyards tantalizes with suggestions and remarks, allowing readers to puzzle out the bigger picture for themselves.
Back to the characters. I found Arki immediately relatable and likable. Up until the point in which he meets Captain Killcoin, Arki leads a relatively comfortable life. Recording the deeds of merchants is a safe enough prospect but deep down he is bored. Salvation from boredom is just what Captain Killcoin offers, even if Arki is too naive to comprehend exactly what that means. Which brings us to the aforementioned Captain Braylar Killcoin. What a complex character we have here. With a surname such as “Killcoin” one might expect an abrasive sort of brute with no incentive in life but money. This could not be further from the truth. Though Captain Killcoin is a rough and bristly protagonist, he is hardly one-dimensional. Killcoin’s general demeanor could almost be considered manic in a lot of ways. One never knows whether to expect a friendly joke or a cruel barb. The deeds of the past way heavily on this man who is as skilled with his flail, Bloodsounder, as he is with his sharp wit.
At one point Arki declares that he has no love for the man but he would be loathe to see him die, and I can associate with this sentiment. Killcoin is the sort of man you are unlikely to become friends with but he is precisely the type to trust your life with. He can inspire even the most craven of scriveners to feats of courage. Of the members of Killcoin’s retinue, Lloi abruptly became a favorite. Much like Arki, Lloi is an outsider to the Syldoon, though that does little to lessen her loyalty. It is rare to find such a pleasurable female protagonist in the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre. Much of the time they seem to fall under one of two extremes. Either they are powerless sex objects or warriors with a serious chip on their shoulder. Lloi manages to be a strong female lead without developing a “screw the world” mentality. She is essential to the company and unnaturally upbeat given her lot in life.
I enjoy the rest of the Syldoon nearly as much. The camaraderie of the group rang true at heart. These are profane professionals who earn their money on the battlefield and spend it on prostitutes and hard drinking. It doesn’t matter whether they are swapping stories over watery ale at an Inn or fighting side by side, the Syldoon are quite obviously a family.
The world SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER takes place in is of the pseudo-Middle Ages European bent but not without variation. Salyards nails all the important details, making the world seem real enough. The story is kept to a deliberately smaller scope than what most would expect. There is a much larger world to explore in future entries to the series. The plausible nature of the locales and people that inhabit the world are crucial when it comes time for Salyards to introduce the more mystical elements. The mundane makes the supernatural appear that much more awe-inspiring and intriguing. As with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, a little bit of magic goes a long way and I can’t wait to learn more about the Deserter Gods, Memoridons, and the Godsveil.
SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER is fraught with danger and deception. The conflicts are extremely personal. The violence is brutal and terrifying. No one escapes a battle unscathed, be it physically or mentally. This is the bread and butter of Sword & Sorcery. This story deals with a small component of what I assume will be a wide and sweeping campaign of tremendous proportions.
At first I had intended to make some snarky remark about SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER being “fantasy debut of the year” as it is so frequently described by critics on Amazon. After reading it I have to grudgingly admit that yes, this very well could be the fantasy debut of the year. Night Shade Books had best cut a massive contract with Jeff Salyards because this author is a significant contender for the Sword & Sorcery throne.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: Heavy and frequent
- Violence: Yes, flails aren't the most elegant of personal combat weapons but they sure are effective...
- Sex: Yes, and plenty of sex-talk besides