Friday, 25 December 2015

Sometimes Numbers are not Enough - My spoiler free review of Chains of the Heretic

Jeff Salyards has conjured up a remarkable world in his debut series. I was delighted that my unsubtle badgering yielded an ARC of the final instalment of the "Bloodsounder's Arc" trilogy.  While this review will eschew spoilers for Chains of Heretic, the whole work is such an interlocked series that there will inevitably be spoilers to the preceding two volumes. So, if you have not yet met Braylar Killcoin and his band of cussed and cursing warriors then look away now.  Or still better, look here at my reviews of the preceding books.

I review Scourge of the Betrayer

I review Veil of the Deserters

However, those like me - who have lived and travelled in the head of Arkamondos scribe to Captain Killcoin's ferocious Syldoon company through two gripping books - you gentle reader may read on - though bewarned any gentleness in this book begins and ends with the reader.

At the end of Veil of the Deserters it had all pretty much gone to hell in a handcart, as Braylar's argumentative Lieutenant Muldoos would say.  Or at least as he would have said if his thinking and speech had not been slurred into incomprehensibility by a memoridon's attack.

Fighting their way out of their home city of Sunwrack, the coup masters of the Jackal tower had been out-coup-ed by the emperor they thought to overthrow and Braylar's already depleted company heads out on a desperate mission to find the previous emperor Thumman lurking in exile.  Arkamondos, never especially lucky where women were concerned, was reeling from being betrayed by a kiss. Such concerns of the heart (or - as Muldoos would consider it - somewhat lower than that) are swiftly shown to be of small consequence against far greater threats.

In war one must be able to outrun whatever one cannot outfight.   But Arki and the Syldoon find their foes are legion and disinclined to give them a simple and accessible choice of fight or flight.  It is hard to imagine a more friendless band than the one Braylar Killcoin led out of Sunwrack, and along a tortuous path they find not only more enemies, but a climate of distrust amongst even those friends who should hold each other most dear.

The previous books had set up an array of plot threads.
  • What is the mysterious Godsveil - that shimmering thousand year old curtain dividing the world in half with the power to drive any who approach it insane - who created it, and how and why?
  • Where does the flail Bloodsounder draw its power and what is its purpose, beyond its ability to steal the memories of those it slays and torture its wielder with them
  • What caused the deep-seated antipathy between siblings Braylar the warrior and Sofjian the memoridon, a mutual distaste which makes Liam and Noel Gallagher look like the Osmonds.
  • How can the crisis at the heart of the Syldoon Empire be resolved now that the Emperor Cynead  has destroyed the delicate balance of power between the Towers and the throne.
These questions carry an implicit demand for Salyards to weave them into a satisfying conclusion as Braylar wends a twisted and arduous path through political and military perils,

But they are not small questions and answering them requires new people in fresh environments as the circle of Arki's vision and Salyards' world expands still more widely. Salyards also shows again his vivid creativity, with whole new settings that stretch the envelope of his innovation. There is an originality to his world building, to the creatures he populates it with and to the system of magic that he uses, which - for me at least - defies any comparison.

After all the casualties of the first two books the brief stopover in Sunwrack gave Braylar a chance to replenish his company and we get to meet Rugdi a female sergeant and an ogrish lieutenant more belligerent even than Muldoos. But for all these intriguing characters, it is the sparring between Soffjian and Braylar that still drew my attention most.  The warring siblings who seemed to hate each other almost as much as I - as reader - loved them both.  Brother and sister circle each other, tongues as sharp as swords, conveying a bitter and weary disappointment which still does not mask the respect they hold for each other's powers.  Soffjian's journey is more tortuous than her brother's, her perils more grievous her desires more complex. Braylar takes his greatest chances on the battlefield driven by an unswerving loyalty to the orders of his Tower Commander and to the welfare of his soldiers.

The great strength of Salyards' writing continues to be his description of battles all seen from the near ground level of the cowering Arki.  To be fair the scribe makes efforts to extend his contribution beyond penmanship to some semblance of swordcraft and even gets tuition from an unanticipated quarter.  There may have been an element of luck in the survival of so useless an unarmoured civilian through the hard fought battles of the first two books. But it is dangerous to taunt fate for so long and Arki - the progressively more embedded war correspondent - dons gambeson and helmet as well as strapping on a blade.

Over the course of the trilogy it is Arki's arc that shows the clearest development.  At the start we had the awkward, bookish civilian in company with soldiers so coarse their funniest story concerned the death of a colleague beneath the mountainous prostitute whose suffocating favours were his particular predilection.  By the last few pages Arki has grown into a far more worldly and resourceful individual prepared to take up arms and brave any danger alongside the soldiers whose grudging respect he has earned.  Still nervous and squeamish - he nonetheless has learnt that mercy has consequences and does not flinch when it is his turn to stick the knife in. I am reminded, as Arki is, of how miserable and barren his life had really been before he fell in with Braylar. Life without companionship is more a matter of existence than living and there is no companionship quite like that of soldiers facing the most desperate of circumstances, knit together into a corporate being by discipline, training and such loyalty that they will lay down their lives for their comrades.

Salyards paints a vivid picture of the crude coarse camaraderie of fighting men, of a military spirit buckled to the point of breaking by the sledgehammer blows of adversity, and of an unlikely hero who finds his place, indeed his family, in the middle of a battlefield where far more than the Syldoon Empire is at stake.    It was with a certain serendipity that my favourite iPhone playlist (The one titled "Sad shit that I like") tripped round to play Dire Strait's "Brothers in Arms" just as I reached a crucial rain filled point in the perils that beset Braylar, Arki et al.  

The trilogy is called Bloodsounder's arc and it is only as I write this that I see the meaning of that title.  For it is not just the flail that carries the name Bloodsounder!  The story may be told by Arki, but this is the story of Braylar Killcoin, one time son, brother, nephew, but above all else he is Syldoon.

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