Egil and Nix are thieves. Good thieves, as a matter of fact. True, they have side interests and pasts. Nix knows something of magic. Egil was trained as a priest of the Momentary God. Both of them have pasts and long careers as thieves, years of tomb robbing and other unsavory jobs.
Now, the results of their last and most profitable mission come back to haunt them, as a consequence of their looting of a demonically haunted tomb leads a noble house with their own pacts with demons to need their services. Under false pretenses, of course, and whether or not Nix and Egil are willing to take the job…
The Hammer and the Blade, by Paul S. Kemp, brings us into a world reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, the underbelly of the city of Sanctuary, the Novaria stories of L Sprague De Camp, Michael Shea, and many others.
In other words, yeah, The Hammer and the Blade is Sword and Sorcery, if Sword and Sorcery has any meaning as a term or subgenre. And Old School Sword and Sorcery at that.
The strengths of the novels are many. In a Sword and Sorcery novel, with a focus tightly on a couple of protagonists, the novel rises and falls on those characters appealing to the reader. The author hits this solidly with Nix and Egil. We immediately get the sense that this pair has known each other for quite a while, knows each others foibles and get along well together. I hesitate to use the word bromance, but the relationship between the pair is indeed close. Its too crude to say that Nix is an expy of the Grey Mouser and Egil is an expy of Fafhrd, but the author seems to be trying to make at least a gentle evocation of those two classic characters. Nix is the street-rat, Egil is from the out-country. Egil is power and force, Nix is stealth and skill. Nix has a minor affinity for magic.
A quibble on this characterization though–I would have liked a little more Egil. Nix is clearly our major character of the pair, and we learn a fair bit more about him than we do Egil. In fact a key part of Egil’s background is only given out as a reveal to explain character motivation a good way into the book. Nix is most definitely the voice of the book, and his sometimes smartass personality leavens things when things are looking not at all good for our heroes. Or just when Nix gets bored. This tendency for Nix to babble at the drop of a heat even gets lampshaded by one of the antagonists.
We get a good sense of the motivations of the antagonist, enough that one can sympathize with his plight, even if his methods are deplorable. Similarly the plot, initiated by the actions of Nix and Egil, and driven by the needs of the protagonist, is just the right sort of scale for a sword and sorcery novel. The fate of the world is not at stake, the fate of a nation is not at stake. Its a very personal scale, even if the action is larger than life.
And what action there is! In roleplaying game terms, we do not meet Egil and Nix as first level characters. They are talented, competent, and very very good at what they do. Their first mission, in the prologue, has them taking on a demon, and the action only ramps up from there as we progress through the novel. The author describes this action very well indeed, be it fighting dangerous monsters in a tomb or a barroom fight. The two protagonists have clearly done this many times before, and together, and work as an excellent pairing.
The setting is described in the typical leanness of prose in the sub-genre. There isn’t a tremendous amount of worldbuilding. Instead things get parceled out as the reader goes along, building up bit by bit a decent knowledge of the world. Would I have liked more? Absolutely. I’m a big fan of worldbuilding. But we do get enough of a sense of the city and the rest of the world that the duo travel through. There’s a real sense that the city is old, and I have no doubt that Egil and Nix cut their teeth exploring sewers and dungeons beneath the city before taking up the more dangerous profession of tomb robbing.
The magic in the novel is mysterious, chaotic and not to be trusted. Although Nix himself uses what roleplayers would call magic items, there is an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons feel to this use, rather than the blander 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Artifacts are capricious, mysterious things that don’t always work as intended or desired. Dark magic is suitably repellent and tinged with a sense of danger.
The author keeps the action of the story moving. Just when things seem to simmer down, Kemp knows its time to “add ninjas” to the story and keep the story from ever flagging. There are some really nice set-pieces of battles as Egil and Nix, as talented as they are, face every more dangerous foes and perilous situations. The book remained consistently entertaining and I would love to see more of the worlds and its characters. I’d also like, one day, for Kemp to write his own “Ill Met in Dur Follin” and show how Nix and Egil go on to forge their friendship.
Female characters? Well, given the subject matter, we don’t have any viewpoint female characters. As far as the genre buzzword of the year, agency, after the fact its clear that one of the female characters does have far more agency than we see. This appears to be a result of point of view and framing and a deliberate withholding of a reveal on the part of the author to increase the impact in the denouement.
I’m not sure about the ending, though. I am conflicted if the fate of the ultimate antagonist once defeated fits perfectly with the two protagonists, given how their characters have been presented, their motivations and their actions. Is it just desserts for the antagonist? Yes. But is it something that in the end Nix and Egil would have done? I’m not so sure. I will say that the ultimate fate of the antagonist is definitely foreshadowed by a running theme through the novel. It’s a well done Chekov’s Gun, at any rate.
Aside from my concerns about the ending, though, The Hammer and the Blade is old school Sword and Sorcery with an appealing pair of protagonists whose feats of derring-do and likeable personalities kept me turning the pages. If you have any interest in Sword and Sorcery, I am confident you will find the same.