Review: Son of the Black Sword
As Larry Correia’s biggest fan I’ve been looking forward to his fantasy debut for a while now. If I remember properly he’s been teasing fans, talking about it on his blog for a couple years now at least. Judging by how incredibly large scale Larry’s urban fantasy and alternate history novels have been I’ve been eager to see what he could do with straight up fantasy. I can happily say that SON OF THE BLACK SWORD will not disappoint the Monster Hunter Nation and it will also likely earn Larry a lot of new fans from the fantasy genre.
Here’s the plot synopsis: After the War of the Gods, the demons were cast out and fell to the world. Mankind was nearly eradicated by the seemingly unstoppable beasts, until the gods sent the great hero, Ramrowan, to save them. He united the tribes, gave them magic, and drove the demons into the sea. Yet as centuries passed, Gods and demons became myth and legend, and the people no longer believed. The Age of Law began.
Ashok Vadal has been chosen by a powerful ancient weapon to be its bearer. He is a Protector, the elite militant order of roving law enforcers. No one is more merciless in rooting out those who secretly practice the old ways. Everything is black or white, good or evil, until he discovers his entire life is a fraud. Ashok isn’t who he thinks he is, and when he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the consequences lead to rebellion, war—and destruction.
Ashok seems like a deceptively simple character. Trained by an order of warrior monks and chosen by the ancestor blade Angruvadal to be its bearer, Ashok is peerless. He is the best of the Protectors, a perfect soldier that carries out orders without question. The massacres he has perpetrated in obedience to the Law have earned him the nickname Black Heart. On the surface he could appear one-dimensional but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that Ashok shares literary DNA with Toru, the disgraced samurai from The Grimnoir Chronicles and Agent Franks from Monster Hunter International–my two favorite Correia characters. Ashok starts out as a tool, a weapon, but this is purposeful. When Ashok’s world is turned upside down by a terrible truth his unflinching devotion to the law serves to really complicate matters for him and everyone else.
There’s a certain humor to Ashok, despite his stoic, no-nonsense attitude (or perhaps because of it). We have a protagonist that believes so fiercely in the Law that he voluntarily turns himself in to the authorities upon committing a crime, imprisoning himself in a jail that could not possibly contain him. He’s not a good man by any means. Over the 20 years he has served as a Protector he slaughtered countless men, women, and children for a number of offenses. And yet this is the man that has been fated to lead a rebellion that will free millions of casteless from tyranny. There’s a prophecy but it’s a nice twist on the typical simple, innocent farm boy who will rise to defeat evil. Ashok has a fulfilling character arc over the course of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD and there’s still much more room for him yet to grow as the series continues.
Correia novels are notorious for ensemble casts of colorful characters–in the case of the Monster Hunter series several of the supporting characters have been so successful as to earn their own spin-off novels (MONSTER HUNTER ALPHA EBR review and MONSTER HUNTER NEMESIS EBR review). SON OF THE BLACK SWORD introduces a handful of potentially amazing characters, though the book would have benefited from giving them a greater focus. A lot of time is wisely spent developing Ashok but the others are given considerably less attention. I’m very interested to learn more about Jagdish the twice-dishonored warrior, Rada the antisocial archivist, Keta the Keeper of Names, and Thera the mysterious mercenary. Regardless, this is only the first book of the series and there is plenty of time and opportunity to further flesh out these characters. I also look forward for more to be revealed about Grand Inquisitor Omand, Sikasso the assassin and their motivations come the sequel. Correia writes some of the absolute best multi-dimensional villains you can find in genre fiction.
Those fantasy readers who have grown tired of white bread pseudo-European settings should rejoice because SON OF THE BLACK SWORD has a very obvious Asian flavor to it (for reasons that are hinted at over the course of the novel). I believe that it’s safe to say that the Writer Nerd Game Night’s Legend of the Five Rings fan fiction has had a major influence on the creation of this world (in the best possible way).
There are lots of fun nuggets of world building. Demons dwell in the ocean and as a result mankind has been confined to land for centuries. Demons occasionally strike forth from the depths and wreak havoc on coastal cities. Only the lowest of the low are condemned to live near water. “Fish-eater” is used as a derogatory term while “ocean” and “saltwater” are used as curses. Another awesome aspect of SON OF THE BLACK SWORD is the titular black sword. Ancestor blades are extremely rare relics. They are the only weapons capable of easily parting demon flesh and bearers have access to the instincts of all those to have wielded the sword before them. These black swords (such as Ashok’s Angruvadal) are the ultimate weapon/status symbol and they are a major driving force of the plot. I will admit that terms like “Inquisition” and “Protector” could have been substituted for something better fitting of the setting but that’s a minor nitpick.
The continent of Lok is ruled, not by a brutal tyrant but instead by an uncaring bureaucracy. Religion and superstition are illegal, punishable by death and the Law dictates every aspect of daily life. A rigid caste system maintains order and at the bottom of the hierarchy are the casteless. These untouchables aren’t even considered human and as a result they are treated as property less valuable than livestock. For hundreds of years the casteless have lived brief, meaningless lives toiling in fear but a Prophet has been chosen and the rebellion ignited. The history of Lok is obscured to all but a select few though myths and legends are difficult to stamp out entirely.
This wouldn’t be a very good review of a Correia book if I neglected to talk about the action. When you open SON OF THE BLACK SWORD be sure to wear a parka because you’re going to be bathed in buckets of blood. With his magical sword and Protector training Ashok is the sort of protagonist to do Conan proud. There’s a running melee through a mountain town between Ashok and an army of raiders at the end of the book that lives up to Correia’s trademark set piece battles. What I appreciate most is that the protagonists are given logical reasons for being able to surviving pitched combat that would fell an ordinary man or woman in moments. It’s fantasy, sure, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unbelievable.
The plotting is as deft as it’s ever been, Correia’s writing only continues to approve with every new release. There are a couple of awesome twists, including one with some major implications that I truly did not see coming. Hints are dropped over the course of the novel relating to the true nature of things but there are a lot of questions in need of answering. SON OF THE BLACK SWORD delivers a fun and fulfilling sword & sorcery tale while setting the stage for something even greater for the sequels to come. Correia thinks BIG and I’m confident that Saga of the Forgotten Warrior book two will serve to ramp up the scale to mammoth proportions.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: I only remember a few minor curses (beyond the made up ones)
Violence: Robert E. Howard levels of violence
Sex: Hinted at but not shown.
Pre-order SON OF THE BLACK SWORD here.