Review: Veil of the Deserters
VEIL OF THE DESERTERS (Amazon) is the sequel to SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER (EBR Review) by Jeff Salyards, a Sword & Sorcery novel that earned a spot in our Best of 2012 lineup. The first book in Bloodsounder’s Arc unexpectedly blew me away (so much so that I read it and reviewed it twice) and I’ve been waiting for the sequel ever since. In the time that has passed I’ve read a lot of books but SCOURGE has managed to remain vivid in my imagination.
I’ve also come to understand (if not completely agree) with some of the criticisms leveled at the first book. This time I’ve got some criticisms of my own to share, though they hardly kept me from loving, what is shaping up to be, one of my favorite fantasy series of all time.
Here’s the Amazon book description:
Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual. The Syldoonian Emperor, Cynead, has solidified his power in unprecedented ways, and Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be complicated and dangerous. Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and Soffjian are at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is unsurprisingly small. But it is filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian.
So VEIL OF THE DESERTERS picks up immediately after SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER leaves off. VEIL is a much larger book (nearly twice the length) but in a lot of ways it reads like the next installment in a serial. Those who complained about the length and ending of SCOURGE can consider this PART II. Neither of these books should be read as a standalone, nor should they be read out of order. This isn’t a condemnation (this is a series after all) so much as it is an observation. With this sequel Salyards further develops the characters and their relationships with the world and with each other.
The characters were my favorite part of the first book. Told from the perspective of Arki, readers learn to love and loathe the Syldoon soldiers. The beautiful prose brings Arki to life. If you’re going to tell a story from the perspective of a scribe it’s best to make the writing reflect that and Salyards succeeds on this front. He strings vivid sentences together with a mastery I consider unrivaled, even among my favorite authors. The world portrayed in these novels could be called grimdark — characters bear surnames like Killcoin, inns go by titles such as the Grieving Dog and there’s a Forest of Deadmoss, the capital of the Syldoon empire is called Sunwrack, and the gods are deserters — but there’s an undeniable beauty that can be attributed to the prose.
In his short time with Captain Killcoin and the crew Arki has endured personal loss, though he is still an outsider. The Syldoon don’t trust him and the arrival of two Memoridons, magicians that manipulate memory, only serves to pique further suspicion. Those who complained about the lack of female characters in SCOURGE (despite the presence of Lloi, a wonderfully realized character) will find much to appreciate in the Memoridons. Both are strong characters with agency, but for different reasons. Soffjian is sister to the prickly Captain Killcoin, and she can match him verbal blow for blow. Then there’s Skeelana, a woman out of her element, much like Arki. These two new characters provide new opportunities and dangers for our narrator to navigate through.
Those who survived SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER make a return. Captain Braylar Killcoin continues to be vastly compelling. I’ve never read a character that better exemplified bipolar disorder. It’s impossible to predict Braylar’s moods and there’s an aura of danger that permeates his every action and word. The presence of his sister throws a wrench into all of his careful scheming and we even get a glimpse of Braylar’s back story.
With VEIL OF THE DESERTERS Salyards spends time building on all the delicious bite sized morsels he teased at in the first book. We get to learn more about the Syldoon and their recruiting practices, the Memoridons and their magic, Bloodsounder with its ties to the Deserter Gods, and even the governing practices in the Capital of Coups. All of these details and more create an irresistible and absorbing setting. Reading SCOURGE I suspected that what at times appeared to be the trappings of typical Eurocentric fantasy concealed something much deeper. It’s good to see that I was not mistaken. And still I want more. Visiting the Syldoon city of Sunwrack, Capital of Coups, was marvelous but short lived. Such a grand city(the likes of which has not yet been experienced in the series) deserves a larger section of the book for exploration. I get the feeling that we’re still only catching a glimpse of what Salyards has in store and I hope the series is long lived so that we can delve into all its nooks and crannies.
There’s plenty of action (as to be expected when dealing with the Syldoon) and Salyards treats it with all the weight and authenticity it deserves. Fighting is fast and bloody, tides turn and fortunes reverse, and a slip of footing can mean the difference between life and death. No one is ever safe in the George R.R. Martin fashion, as Salyards made evident in SCOURGE. Previously this series was of the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre but with the exclusion of Bloodsounder it was missing the Sorcery. The addition of the Memoridons brings the heat. The memory magic practiced by Soffjian and Skeelana brings some interesting possibilities to play and I’m excited to see that develop as the series continues.
My biggest complaint about VEIL concerns the dialogue. I cannot deny that Salyards writes flowing dialogue that is sharp. The problem I encountered while reading VEIL is that no matter how well written it is it can at time feel repetitive. There’s too much parry and riposte to feel completely natural. It makes for entertaining reading but after a while you can start to predict the general structure of conversation. I believe that SCOURGE balanced this a lot better, though perhaps it became more apparent to me reading VEIL because the sequel is so much longer.
In all other areas VEIL OF THE DESERTERS is bigger and better. There’s more action, more character, more world building, more danger, more plot development, more everything really. Salyards is hitting his stride, dodging the sophomore slump and playing the long game. Readers get some answers and pose new questions, all the while rooting for the unlikely hero Arkamondos and his deadly allies within the Jackal Tower of the Syldoon Empire.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: Heavy and frequent
- Violence: Heavy and bloody
- Sex: None