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Shadowhawk reviews Paul S. Kemp’s first in a new original fantasy series for Angry Robot Books, a novel that follow the adventures of the new thieving duo on the block, Egil and Nix.
“Swords & Sorcery at its best for a modern audience, The Hammer and The Blade echoes the magic of the old Dragonlance novels and takes the reader on a fast-paced adventure against sorcerors and demons through some of the most dangerous locations in the world.” ~The Founding Fields
Paul Kemp has been on my radar for a long time, ever since I found out that he had written a short story for Black Library in the Age of Legend anthology that was released earlier this year and which I reviewed here previously. I’ve also read his recent Star Wars novel, Deceived, and I quite enjoyed that one too. So when I dove into The Hammer and The Blade it was with a lot of enthusiasm and high expectations.
Verdict: The Hammer and The Blade is a truly fantastic novel that deserves to be out there with the best of the best and is a novel that I’d say is a recommended read for the Sword & Sorcery fantasy sub-genre.
Thieves seem to be a really popular set of characters in fantasy novels, far more than I ever believed. Following on from the fantastic duo of Royce and Hadrian in Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels, and Widdershins from Ari Marmell’s Thief’s Covenant, is another charismatic, affable duo you just got to love and root for: Egil Verren, the hammer-wielding only priest of the Momentary God Ebenor, and Nix Fall, thief extraordinaire. Together, these two made for one of the best reading experiences of this year.
Like I said in the bolded text up above, The Hammer and The Blade really evoked the old Dragonlance novels for me, particularly the original Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy and some of the Dragonlance Legends novels. Those happened to be one of the biggest influences on my reading in high school, alongside Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemian saga novels, and to this day I hold them as some of the best novels ever written. Rose-tinted glasses, some might call this dedication, but I feel it is entirely justified. Those novels were well-written and really took the reader on a journey across fantastic landscapes and with a rich, varied cast of characters. The Hammer and The Blade is smaller in scale than most of them but it is no less awesome because of that.
The world-building is key here. Paul’s deftness for creating a believable, complex, and compelling world is second to none. I’ve seen him do wonders with an existing setting such as Warhammer Fantasy or Star Wars, and to see him continue and even better himself by several degrees was pure joy. The world of Ellerth is as charming as place, as charming as Midkemia, Krynn or Elan. Daemons and dark powers are everywhere, and all that stands between them and domination of the known world are a pair of treasure hunters and rogues who could put Indian Jones or Lara Croft to shame. From the little clues in the opening chapters to the fantastic descriptions in the later chapters, Ellerth is very much a world in its prime that is just asking to be written about in depth. And the relationships between the immortals and the mortals, whether it be between gods and common folk, or demons or dark sorcerors, are just icing on the cake. The way Paul writes, you just want to keep on reading and discovering more about what makes his characters and the world they live tick. Plus, all those scenes with the old, dead lords of Afirion really spoke to me with their Egyptian vibes, putting me in the mind of the Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz which I sure as hell enjoyed. The first two of the trilogy that is.
The characterisation is also just plain great here. Egil and Nix are well-realised, believable characters, who are amply supported by a great supporting cast: the sorceror Rakon Noristru, his sisters Rusilla and Merelda, his “captain” Baras and the former watchman Jyme. By the time you get into the meat of the novel, together they are fun and engaging to read as the cast of the Dragonlance, Riyria or Midkemian novels. There is a sense of mystery that permeates each of the characters, no matter who they are, and that alone was enough to keep me turning the pages. I like mysterious characters. I like being led on a pseudo-detective journey through a novel as a character’s past unfolds and we learn more about him or her. In that respect, the one negative about The Hammer and The Blade is that it doesn’t go far enough for my liking. There are lots of great themes and ideas introduced, such as Ebenor the Momentary God, the pacts between the houses of demons and mortals for mutual benefit, and what not, but they are not as detailed as I’d like them to be.
When all is said and done and read though, each of Paul’s characters are someone you can root for by the end. It holds true for Egil and Nix as expected since they are the protagonists, but it is also true for Rakon and his sisters. There are layers of characterisation to each and every one of them and Paul’s pacing of how to go about unveiling all those details was perfect. Egil and Nix are a good match for my other favourite thieving duo, Hadrian and Royce, and a cagematch between them would be a cracking read. I was initially apprehensive that the former might just be the same as the latter but that was an irrelevance. They are as distinct as you can get, even beyond the different worlds they inhabit, while similar enough that I can appreciate Egil and Nix’s easy familiarity with each other and their friendly jocularity. Rakon is a character that I initially despised but by the time the novel came to a close, I couldn’t help but sympathise with him. He is neck-deep in the dark arts and is the villain of the novel but he still came across as someone that I had both negative and positive reactions to at times. The same goes for his sisters who I initially thought were just as bad as him but came to sympathise with them far more. The women of House Noristru definitely got the wrong end of the bargain between their house and House Thyss, one of the preeminent Houses of the Lords of Hell. Even that damn title sounds impressive. Doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily but it still packs a punch when said out loud.
The pacing of the novel is borderline perfect. There are moments of some great character development followed by some intense combat, followed by some much slower scenes as the narrative progresses and then everything in between those extremes. Paul’s action scenes are some of the best I’ve read, and they are certainly far more descriptive and engaging than the ones in Deceived. His descriptions of Egil’s preferred style, wielding a war-hammer in each hand, matched by Nix and his sword against the variety of enemies that the two encounter were all brutal, to-the-point and often quite amusing given the banter between them. I like action scenes more than what I sometimes consider to be the tediousness of character developing scenes and so The Hammer and The Blade was a treat for me. That’s not to say that the character development was lacking in any way though, as I already talked about earlier. Its just that sometimes those scenes dragged on a little too much for my liking.
There is plenty of magic in The Hammer and The Blade, whether it is Nix dabbling in unknown items of power, or Rakon working his sorcery or the mindmagic of his sisters. What I really liked was how these all fluctuated on the spectrum between horrifying and deeply amusing. After all, there is no greater scene than when the protagonist (or a protagonist if you so prefer) attempts to activate a magic item, only for the magic to go back on him. Or when the magic being practiced is so enjoyably repulsive that it’d be right at home in some of the darkest fantasy settings.
The dialogue was also right on the money all the time. Whether it is character monologues or the banter between Egil and Nix or what have you, the dialogue deserves a special mention. Without good dialogue, even the best of novels flounder. Paul is great at writing simple pieces of dialogue that hint at a great amount of subtlety. One of the other strengths of the novel.
So you see, The Hammer and The Blade is a novel that speaks to me on so many different levels and reminds me of so many great novels I’ve read and movies I’ve watched. It has everything I want in a fantasy novel and then some.
What really made the experience stand out above all others this year was the fact that I was reading an actual physical advance proof copy, courtesy of the fantastic Darren Turpin at Angry Robot Books. Oftentimes, review blogging is such a rewarding experience.
All that said, I would really recommend this novel to all the fantasy readers on this blog. This is not a novel that you should be missing out on this year. I sure as sure expect the novel to pick up some award nominations for next year at the VERY least. It truly deserves all the recognition it has gotten so far and what it’ll be getting in the weeks and months to come.
And with that, I give this novel a 9.5/10 and will say that the wait till the sequel A Discourse in Steel, to be released early next year, is a long, long wait.