A military unit outside of the boundaries of its Empire, messing around in client kingdoms and bordering polities. A motley group of soldiers and gritty veterans, more than a bit war-weary. Some of those soldiers are burdened with dark secrets, and a mission and purpose unclear to anyone around them.
Standard Sword and sorcery stuff, right? Just another in the Sword and Sorcery boom that we are seeing these days? What’s unusual and special about this novel? What makes this novel different is not the world, the plot or the writing — its the protagonist. Someone you would not expect…
Scourge of the Betrayer is a debut novel from Jeff Salyards. A sword and sorcery piece following the adventures of a company of soldiers from the Syldoon Empire. The innovation that Salyards brings to the table is the nature of the protagonist. Rather than having its brooding, mysterious Captain Braylor Killcoin, or the mutilated Lloi, or one of the minor soldiers as the protagonist and the viewpoint character, we get someone quite different — Arki. Arkamondos, a scribe and chronicler, who is hired by the Syldoon to record their adventures. This gives us an outsider’s viewpoint. Arki is not a soldier, knows nothing of warfare, and despite his profession, really is callow and naive. Additionally, he is not from the Empire at all, and so the machinations as epitomized by Captain Killcoin’s company, are far removed from what he is used to or comfortable with.
This outsider’s perspective from Arki makes for a fresh take on the genre. The novel is on ground well covered by the likes of Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie and most especially Glen Cook (which came to mind given the idea of a military company recording its deeds). While I don’t think Salyards is ready to be enshrined in that pantheon of military secondary world fantasy novels yet, the use of Arki is an innovation, and Salyards makes the most of it, allowing us to see the actions of the company from the outside, and, along with Arki, try to puzzle out what is really going on. Thus, overwrought exposition to tell us things that the viewpoint character long since knew can be omitted. Its a fresh and clever choice.
The novel begins and builds slowly. We start in a tavern, a cliche to be sure, but its an extended scene and sequence that helps establish the members of the Syldoon company, Arki himself, and plants some seeds of mystery for a later payoff. The novel is then book-ended with an extended action sequence to provide that payoff to the reader, especially in the character arc and development of our protagonist and viewpoint character, Arki.
In between, we have the veil slowly pulled back, exploring the characters of the company (especially Captain Killcoin and Lloi), get some tasty action sequences, and the slow reveal of answers to some of the questions posed in the opening tavern scene. The evolution and development of Arki is handled well. Arki is chucked into the deep end at the beginning of the book, and slowly but surely starts to swim. The progression of the story is not overly smooth for any of the characters, with natural feeling reverses and challenges rocking the boat along the way.
I had expected going in to hear the notes of Morgan, Abercrombie and Cook within the narrative. I had not expected the notes and motifs of Michael Moorcock that I found in Scourge of the Betrayer, too. Although the world is not depicted as richly and as baroquely described as Moorcock does, there are some interesting things in common that the novels share. For example, the world is not round, and has a boundary, a literal end of the world that is dangerous to approach, much less to contemplate crossing. Earl Aubec would certainly understand.
Also, it emerges that Killcoin has in his possession a special weapon that gives its name to the sequence of books that Salyards apparently has in mind: Bloodsounder. Bloodsounder is not an expy of Stormbringer, mind, but all the same it is a mythic, puissant weapon that is as much a curse as a blessing to its wielder. And even more unusually, its not the sword or dagger you’d expet, but rather a flail. There are clear inspirations from Moorcock in its design, functions and drawbacks, and the author does well in describing how a flail actually works in combat, its strengths and limitations.
Also very Moorcockian in Scourge of the Betrayer are the small bits of theology and mythology we get about the nature of the world, and what has happened to it in the past. I hesitate to speak more about these since they are hinted at in the latter portion of book, but suffice to say that the world has additional hinted at complexity that the reader will not expect to uncover.
The writing in the novel is workmanlike and competent. It’s not scintillating and spectacular, but it gets the job done. The sequences, both action and conversational, flow decently and the beats of the story are well placed. With practice, I’m pretty confident the author will improve his craft in subsequent volumes.
So what didn’t work for me? Mainly, as alluded above, its the lack of detail we’re given about the world. I would have liked more world building from the author. The novel’s world felt somewhat desaturated, an environment that should have been richer and more vibrant, but instead felt underdeveloped. Granted, in a short novel like this, the worldbuilding is always going to be less than a fatter fantasy. Granted, given that this has a low Weimer Stakes Score and is small bore fantasy, world is not going to be intimately and intricately described. So I found the worldbuilding to be somewhat lacking for me.
There are a few things here I would have liked to have learned a lot more about, especially the geography; that strangeness to its borders, and the strange mythology and theology that I mentioned above, are ripe for more detail. I wanted more of the Moorcockian bits. Both of these reminded me of Phillipa Ballantine’s novel Hunter and Fox in both respects. And frustratingly, like that novel, I wanted more than I got on those subjects. Scourge of the Betrayer isn’t quite as full of mysteries in that regard as Ballantine’s work, but there is enough intimated here to know I wanted more. Also, a little fleshing out of the more mundane aspects of the world would have been nice. And yes, evangelist for such things as I am, I wanted a map or at least a better idea of the political situation. Just how big IS the Syldoon Empire, and how many polities ring it and make it up?
Despite those reservations, I did enjoy Scourge of the Betrayer. The unusual protagonist and point of view elevates the novel, and hopefully heralds more good things from Salyards in the future, be in this universe or elsewhere.