Review: Seven Blades in Black
SEVEN BLADES IN BLACK (Amazon) is Sam Sykes’ newest novel and the start of a new series, THE GRAVE OF EMPIRES. I’ve seen it described as “action fantasy,” which I guess is fantasy but with more punching? While there’s plenty of punching (and shooting and eviscerating) in SEVEN BLADES, what makes it memorable is that at every turn Sykes seems to be asking “how could this be even more awesome?” and then delivering. The result is break-neck chase scenes on ostriches, riverboats full of assassins, unspeakable monsters, souped-up magical fights, and a lot of poor decision making.
You could call it action fantasy.
Or you could call it a lot of fun.
Sal the Cacophony has a list of names. It’s the list, really, that brought her to this room where she’s being interrogated by General-Militant Tretta Stern of the Glorious Revolution. Well, that and the fact that she’s kidnapped one of Stern’s soldiers. And burned down a few cities, but she has an explanation.
Sal is a Vagrant, which means that she was once a member of the proud, magic-using Imperium. Now she’s an outcast fighting for survival in the wild west of the Scar, where freemakers, revolutionaries, imperials, and even some of the religious zealots from Haven all scrabble for the upper hand.
Driven by her almost primal need for revenge, Sal’s mission to kill everyone on her list brings her up against insanely powerful magic users. Which means that as much as she hates to admit it, she needs more help than even her semi-sentient, magical firearm (the Cacophony) can provide. Whether that’s willing help, from her lover Liette, or unwilling help, from the kidnapped Cavric Proud of the Revolution, Sal has to take what she can get. And she does take it, pushing herself and her companions to the breaking point as she fights to cross off each name of the mages who left her with so many scars.
Sal is clever–and the writing is, too. Sometimes it seems almost too clever (if that makes sense), like it’s asking for a pat on the head for being funny. Sal is a real personality and most chapters start with an aside from her. It’s a great way to get to know her and her history, especially at the beginning, but as the novel continues the conceit begins to get in the way of the story. It slows the drive of the narrative, but given the turbo-charged action, some readers might welcome a breather.
The same goes for the frame story with Governor Stern. Frame stories can be a drag when not fully integrated into the story itself, but here the frame story does some important heavy lifting as it pulls the reader away from the relentless momentum of Sal’s story. Stern’s skepticism of Sal is a good counterpoint to Sal’s own first-person narrative and it also gives Sykes another avenue for both character and world-building.
Speaking of worldbuilding (did you see that smooth transition?), I really like the world Sykes sketches out in SEVEN BLADES. The first book of a series is a big ask but Sykes handles it well. While we spend most of our time with the Vagrants and the Revolutions, there are tantalizing glimpses of the fanatics from Haven and of the Imperium that should reassure us that there are plenty of show-downs to come. I loved the mix of technology and with typical fantasy elements and each group’s relationship with magic or technology seems carefully thought out.
For a book that includes this sheer volumes of explosives and expletives, SEVEN BLADES is also remarkably reflective, taking the time to develop Sal in all of her brokenness. The trauma of Sal’s past affects every aspect of her relationships and Sykes doesn’t rush past the pain. Instead he holds the pain up, lets it catch the light, shows the reader how it infiltrates every aspect of who Sal is.
One way Sykes attempts to highlight Sal’s vulnerability is by giving her a lover. Liette is a good addition to the story, but her relationship with Sal felt more frustrating than revealing. Sykes kept hitting the same note with them and while I understand that a story like this isn’t necessarily focused on character growth, by the time we reached the end of the novel it felt really repetitive. In fact, the novel’s greatest weakness may be the occasional feeling that despite all the action, we’re not really going anywhere. This is especially true in the last third of the book, which felt like it could have been streamlined without losing any essential elements.
SEVEN BLADES IN BLACK is fun introduction to a character who will stick with you for a while. Sal the Cacophony is witty, profane, broken, wild, and doesn’t give a…hoot…what you think about her. She is also undoubtedly about to make some more bad decisions. I’d like to be there when she does.
**Let me end with a quick PSA: **don’t read the back of the book** Read this review instead. I mean, you already are, so gold star for you. But really. The back of the book will only reveal things that someone (???) thought would draw readers in, but that discerning readers don’t discover until WELL into the book, which is just rude.**
- Recommended Age: whatever age you would let you kid see a raunchy, rated R movie. 15+?
- Language: ALL the swears (If you are offended by the f-word, this is NOT your book)
- Violence: ALL the violence (like, more than one person gets ripped inside out)
- Sex: One fade with moderate detail, A LOT of innuendo