A Discourse In Steel by Paul S. Kemp – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in Paul S. Kemp’s Egil and Nix sword and sorcery series.
“A grand old episode of the adventures of Egil and Nix with a much stronger sword and sorcery vibe.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
A few days ago I asked a general question on Twitter: does the true enjoyment of a genre film come from being widely read in that specific genre? Reactions were primarily in the ballpark of “no, a good movie is a good movie, and that’s it”. The reason that I asked this question was because I had just watched both versions of Conan the Barbarian, the old one with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the new one with Jason Momoa. And despite the fact that I considered the reboot to be quite subpar, saying as much in my review of it back in 2011, for some reason I really enjoyed it this time around. Perhaps it was the fact that I have read so much fantasy since then, especially of the Red Sonja (comics exclusively, and even some Conan ones) variety and of course, Paul’s first novel with Egil and Nix, The Hammer and The Blade. I couldn’t quite understand why that difference in opinion would be there. I wasn’t exactly holding back any punches in my review of the movie.
But then I thought, how does that work in reverse? Could I enjoy a sword and sorcery novel if I had seen many sword and sorcery films and enjoyed them? Which brings me to this review. You see, when I first read A Discourse In Steel, I wasn’t so sure that it was as good a book as its predecessor. There was a certain bleakness and darkness that set it apart, despite the fact that the first book had demons, implied demon-human sexual congress and a whole lot of mind-frakkery going on. Rewatching both those Conan movies made me realise that my primary concerns with the novel were unfounded.
A Discourse In Steel is as much a proper sword-and-sorcery novel as could be expected, and Paul Kemp handles things with a definite flair for mystery and subterfuge and true sword-and-sorcery style action that has long been a staple of the genre.
As with its predecessor, this novel continues to build on the dynamic between the two male protagonists. We get to see much more of what makes them who they are. Egil particularly gets a lot of attention as we also get to find out just what might have happened to his wife and his daughter, what caused him to turn into the man he is now. The novel starts with putting Egil in an extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable position, which was straight out of the left field. I’d never expected to see a scene like that where this novel was concerned, and to be honest, this shocked me right off. It was a fantastic start and it set the tone for Egil’s entire character arc for the rest of the novel. Nix is placed in a somewhat similar position later on, although not quite to such a degree, which I thought was appropriate. His past does not hide as much darkness as does his friend’s, but it is more his present that we are forced to consider. A Discourse In Steel certainly gives a good accounting of its male leads.
Where the female leads are concerned, Rose and Mere, we unfortunately don’t get to see much of them. That’s a bit fitting since the novel is primarily about Egil and Nix, so the two ladies are more secondary characters, but they are certainly involved through and through, carrying over a lot of… baggage from the events of the previous novel. I’ll be honest in that I wanted to see a lot more of them, particularly since the two sisters got some standout scenes (and dialogue) in The Hammer and The Blade. A Discourse In Steel doesn’t quite live up to that satisfaction. The sisters just aren’t as… proactive as I wanted them to be. The balance between featuring the protagonists and secondary characters can be quite tricky, and while Paul has done mostly alright here in that regard, there are some things left wanting as well.
Still, on the whole, I enjoyed the characters. Especially the more minor ones like Tesha and Gadd, who were (to use another of my oft-repeated words) standout performers. With Kemp, its always his smaller characters who add so much to the narrative. This happened with his Knights of the Old Republic novel Deceived and again with his Erevis Cale Trilogy. His minor characters are not throwaway characters who are there…. for plot, but much more. They really help flesh out the larger story, intertwining the various backstories and increasing the scope of the setting itself.
Even though A Discourse In Steel is a fast-paced romp through the streets of Dur Follin and beyond, even though it features some classic thieving action and dark magic and heroism reminiscent of the staples of sword and sorcery (and indeed the lager fantasy) genre, I do have some criticisms of it.
The third arc of the novel, once the heroes and villains are on their journey out of Dur Follin, those scenes weren’t particularly striking. There was a distinct lack of excitement as the journey panned out. Just people sitting in a boat and talking, essentially. Could have been made more exciting, more ridden with tension. The fears of the characters were based in their minds rather than any actual outward physical dangers.
A certain long action scene in the second act, while very engaging and full of some great moments, was remarkable for the fact that the heroes don’t… suffer much. Things were just too convenient for them and that lack of jeopardy iften threatened to bring me out of the narrative. I know that Egil and Nix are very good at what they do. I’ve seen that in the previous book and this book reminds of that fact as well. But still, there was a swing to an extreme here. I wanted more physical consequences and that lack took away from the entire act. It was great to see some mind-based consequences, but we’d already seen them early on and a repetition didn’t help.
And finally, some of the cursing in the novel was just off. It didn’t bother me so much in The Hammer and The Blade but here it definitely did. The whole effect of the cursing was just too comical, whether or not that was the intention. A reason for that I suppose is because it was as if (to use a real world allusion) an American individual cursing in the British style, with perhaps a British accent as well. Didn’t work for me this time around. Too… formal, for lack of a more appropriate word.
And that’s really it. I enjoyed this novel a lot, but it could also have been better in a few places. The ending was mostly satisfying, and the novel ends on a good enough note, so I’m excited for the third novel in the series next year. In the meantime, definitely give A Discourse In Steel a read, especially if you liked The Hammer and The Blade.