Shadowhawk reviews another Nightshade Books debut title, a military fantasy written by new man on the block, Jeff Salyards.
“If ever you want to read something totally outside of the box, Jeff Salyards’ debut should be your first stop.” ~The Founding Fields
I keep going on and on about reading different types of books than what I’m used to and how this year has been a stellar one for that. Thing is that when I set that objective for myself, I had envisioned simply that I would be reading outside of my comfortable genres: epic fantasy and science fiction of the space opera/cosmic variety. I had never even considered straying outside of the comfort zone and reading something that is structurally very different to anything else I’ve read. As with any of the other authors I dabbled with based on my interactions with them/observations on Twitter, I was drawn to Scourge of the Betrayer because of the premise. It reminded of this one particular Dragonlance novel, the name escapes me at the moment, which dealt extensively with a potential assistant scribe to the gods-appointed scribe of Krynn, Astinos I believe he was called. That was an enchanting story and I expected something similar with Jeff’s novel.
Its been about a week since I finished the book and I’m still uncertain of where I stand in respect to the novel. There are some elements that I really liked, and some that I didn’t. Some things that seemed rather refreshing and some that felt like they were nothing more than old and tired concepts. I had a rough time during the reading itself as I kept stopping every 20-30 pages to retrack and clear up one confusion or another. The stilted (?) experience certainly didn’t help me like it.
Scourge of the Betrayer is about a scribe who is hired by a band of fierce soldiers to record their every deed as they go into a foreign nation on some hidden agenda. For those who’ve been following my reviews for a good while, you can no doubt see the attraction of that premise for me. Scribe + soldiers + politics = different = interesting. That’s how I started on that novel and how I expected things to continue. Plus, its Nightshade Books and they haven’t steered me wrong yet, other than Kameron Hurley’s God’s War which I had to stop reading ~45 pages in because I was completely lost in a maze where I understood absolutely nothing. Scourge was nothing like that, but it was no Miserere or The Whitefire Crossing or Jane Carver of Waar either. Not by a long shot.
The one thing that turned me off more than anything else about the novel was that prose was so dry and without any flourishes of any sort. I was not expecting that at all. I wouldn’t really say that the prose is bland, because its not, but neither does it excite me enough to get lost in the narrative and just roll with things. Looking back on it, I wonder if that reflects on our point of view – the scribe Arkamondos, who is an ordinary man by all means and is about as average as they come, outside of his job title. Does the prose suit him or he the prose? Not a question I’ve been able to answer myself. The writing is concise, it is tight, and rarely if ever does it go off any kind of tangents, but that vital spark just wasn’t there. I almost gave up on the book several times because of this, making this novel one of the most frustrating reads for me ever.
The characterisation also confused me a lot of times. Jeff has gone for a bold approach in crafting a story that is a character study of two different men: Arkamondos and the Syldoonian Captain Braylar Killcoin. Given that this is a first person narrative from the point of view of the former, we spend the entire time in his head and seeing the latter through his eyes. It coloured my perceptions about Killcoin and made for an uncomfortable read since I desperately wanted to get inside his head. Arkamondos is one of those characters who are caught in events outside of their control and are platforms through which the author explores these events. I liked that a lot actually, but the truth is that I couldn’t bring myself to become truly invested in his character. I am hardpressed to pinpoint if there was a character growth arc for him other than the usual “acceptance” approach. He could have been treated a fair bit better I think.
Where Killcoin is concerned, he was a frustrating character since he seemed to move between badass-dangerous Syldoonian warrior and the smooth talker with a trick up his sleeve too comfortably. Given some revelations in the second half and in the end about why he is doing what he is doing, I suppose that fits, but it is not an approach that worked for me. I loved his badass parts, but the smooth scenes jarred too much for me to take Killcoin seriously. Which is a downright shame since I really enjoyed his particular arc. The revelations were very surprising, just as they should have been and Jeff shocks me aplenty with them as they come in one by one.
The banter between the various supporting characters was interesting, but far more interesting were the characters themselves. Lloi definitely take the prize here for two reasons. One, she is a disabled character who is wonderfully portrayed and some of the best dialogues in the book. Second, she is a strong character who has a deeply noticeable impact on the narrative and on the characters, particularly in reference to her relationships with Killcoin and Arkamondos. Between the two of them, and some commentary from the other Syldoonians, we get some great commentary on her as a character. Hewspear and Mulldoos offer some standard outlooks on the narrative and on Killcoin, in that they are the gruff, swears-a-lot Sergeant type and their fierce loyalty to their Captain and so on, but they really are far more than that. They don’t get many scenes in the book but just like Lloi they are excellent commentators on the events as they happen. Between these three, you get some really strong commentaries on Killcoin in return and we see more of his character than we would have otherwise. In respect to that, I suppose its the dialogue itself, on its own, where Jeff succeeds the most with this novel. He knows how to capture a character’s thoughts on everything around them in the most simplistic manner possible. I would have liked some more meat on the bones so to speak however, just to reiterate. Being a bit more wordy would have been a great plus for this novel from me.
Given that the viewpoint character is a scribe, a storyteller even, I found it very curious that the novel lacks a certain amount of world-building. We get some hints and some drip-drops of information here and there but they are simple too little, and often too late for my tastes. The minimalist approach doesn’t work for me. I’ve read “focused” military fantasy before, William King’s Death’s Angels comes to mind here, so I’ve experienced deep and intense world-building. By which I mean that you can write a very “focused” military fantasy and still be able to explore the setting in detail. Details about the Syldoonian Empire, the gods of the world, the beliefs, the political structures, etc would have definitely solved my main issue with the novel, that it is too dry and lacks flourishes.
All that said, one thing I can commend Jeff for is that the novel has a good pace. This is where the focus aspect is beneficial since the narrative doesn’t stray off the path into tangents and we stay with both Arkamondos and Killcoin throughout. Quiet convenient that the Captain wants the scribe to be around him all the time! The pacing mollifies me somewhat with regards to the various issues I had with the novel and I’m glad that Jeff got that bit right.
In closing, my recommendation is uncertain as I’m myself not sure exactly where I stand, as I stated previously. To me, Scourge of the Betrayer is not a novel that is for everyone and that it is written with a very specific audience in mind rather than being open-ended in its scope. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, this is a very interesting debut and a bold one at that. I’m definitely interested in reading the sequel.