Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards
Jeff Salyards introduces a dark and gritty world with the first book of the Bloodsounder’s Arc, Scourge of the Betrayer. It’s a short book with 269 pages and I’d have preferred some more fleshing out. The second book is supposed to have a lot more world-building, character development and such, so I’m looking forward to that.
The plot revolves around a small group of soldiers that hire Arkamondos as a chronicler for their exploits. The soldiers are dangerous, unfriendly, and skilled throwing around with insults as their kind do. Good written dialects gives them character, but it can be overdone at times and even hamper the understanding of some sentences with multiple negatives. Sadly, most of the book focuses on a very small group with the rather unlikable captain of the Syldoon having nothing better to do than cursing poor Arki and making boring death threats. Someone as dangerous as he presumably is should know better than to make such threats, as they only make him seem weak and indecisive. They seem to be his bread and butter though and I have to admit I cannot like him, even if such gruff and dangerous people count to my favorites.
Arki himself, the first-person narrator, is mostly nonexistent. He takes a back seat and simply tells us what happens, all the while spouting questions. While I have nothing against asking questions, it’s the only things he’s doing and it makes him seem kinda slow in the head. Especially since he doesn’t ask the important questions. I’m not sure why someone who has never left his hometown would go with a band of dangerous soldiers without knowing anything of their journey. Why is he surprised when they leave the town the next day? Hasn’t he spoken to his new employer about what awaits him? They are secretive, yes, but wouldn’t it have been a deterrent for him if they’d refused to answer his initial questions? Right now it seems like someone came to him, said they needed him, and he just said “Okay, just let me get my things.” Not the brightest man, apparently.
But there’s change. While the first time danger looms he’s so frightened he nearly kills himself, he changes slowly over the course of the book. At the very end he finally starts to become more proactive, which the book desperately needed. Only at the very end does the reader get a character with which to identify. It’s a shame the book stops there, but I have it from the author personally that the second book of the series furthers his development. He definitely has what it takes to become an interesting protagonist. Especially in the company of such gruff soldiers as the Syldoon.
It takes a while for the book get things under way, as the first whiff of action starts at about the 30% mark and some parts before that could have been cut without losing anything. As with the protagonist, much of the book starts to become more interesting at the end of the book. Especially the plot takes interesting turns and it’s one of the major reasons I’ll read on soon.
What the book does good is the fighting. A focus lies on the medieval combat with swords, flails, and crossbows. Maybe too big a focus, as the fighting is detailed, but you mostly see it from the sideline, from the frightened eyes of hiding Arki. I’d have preferred to be right in the midst of the fighting, but maybe that’s a task for the next book.
There are certain problems with the book, mostly inconsistencies and unanswered questions. Let me give you an example:
The Captain of the Syldoon, Braylar Killcoin, wields a cursed flail. The description of the book even tells you what exactly the curse is, but now you only need to know that it isn’t something good. He still uses the flail. Why? That question isn’t answered, no, it isn’t even asked. When Arki first learns about the curse, why isn’t his first question “So why don’t you use a different weapon?” Even if Braylar can’t separate from the flail, he could just have it tucked in his belt and use a sword instead. Or a different flail that isn’t cursed.
Such inconsistencies and unexplained questions haunt the book and I’ll set up a spoiler on the second page, should you want to know more.
One of the highlights of the book lies not in the action or the fighting, but rather in the description of victory. The strongest scene of the book plays after a battle that cost out protagonists a lot. They don’t emerge from the battle with flying banners and heads held high. They slink back to safety battered and beaten, having lost friends and comrades. This realism works very well for this kind of book and evokes much more emotions in a reader than everything before.
The prose is pratical but lacks precision at times and a few too many errors sour this otherwise enjoyable soup.
Concluding: All in all, I liked the book. I have the hope that all the little problems I had with this book are either answered or resolved in the next part of the series. I’d have liked more care with the story, so that all the little inconsistencies and such had been eliminated beforehand. I find them annoying, but they aren’t deal breakers. If you just read for enjoyment, it might even be that you don’t notice them as much as I did. Since becoming a reviewer I’ve noticed that I let much less slide than before and nitpick much more. It’s a book for when you want fast action and gruff soldiers, or if you’ve got only an afternoon to read something short.