Arkamondos has been making a decent living as a scribe. He writes letters, keeps ledgers for merchants, and generally takes any scribing work that pays the bills, even though most of it is utterly boring. When he has the option to become the embedded record keeper for a band of Syldoon soldiers, it seems like an opportunity to do something meaningful and exciting, something that will leave a mark on this world, but once he takes the job, he quickly learns that, along with that excitement, he will also experience a great deal of misery and danger....
Jeff Salyards’ debut novel Scourge of the Betrayer jumped out at me for two reasons. First of all, I’ve learned to pay careful attention to the many debuts Night Shade Books has been releasing over the last few years, because it’s abundantly clear that someone there has an amazing nose for promising new authors. Secondly, I love the idea of a record keeper or historian as the main narrator of a story. It’s obviously nothing new — see also: Croaker in Glen Cook’s Black Company novels or Duiker in Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels — but then again, it’s merely a starting point that allows lots of variation, and as a starting point it’s a promising one that hasn’t been completely over-used yet.
Maybe it’s all the life-threatening danger the Syldoon company drags him through, but Arkamondos (or “Arki” as his new employer calls him) ends up pondering his life throughout the novel. As a result, the novel is an odd combination of blood-curdling action scenes and gentle introspection from start to finish, beginning when Arki is witness to a bar brawl that shows the Syldoon soldiers’ limitless capacity for violence, while at the same time he contemplates his origins as the bastard of a “loose barmaid,” the role of women in society, and his own conflicted feelings about his mother.
Arkamondos is essentially a gentle soul who signed up for a job he probably should have turned down. He’s bookish, not very outdoorsy, and what could charitably be described as conflict-averse. Physicality is definitely not his strength. In other words, he couldn’t be more different from the Syldoon soldiers whose deeds he ends up chronicling, especially their leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin, who is a cold-blooded veteran soldier with a fearsome flail called “Bloodsounder” — as in the series’ title Bloodsounder’s Arc, which tells you we’ll probably hear more about the weapon in future novels. Killcoin is an irascible leader who wields his cutting eloquence like a weapon when he puts down Arkamondos’ incompetence in battle or his growing reluctance to be part of the Syldoons’ mission.
Killcoin gains complexity as the novel progresses, making him by far the most interesting character in Scourge of the Betrayer, but equally fascinating is Lloi, the Syldoon scout whose history and special abilities set her apart from the rest of the band. Most of the other Syldoon tend to fall into recognizable categories and never quite gain the same level of depth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because they’re interesting as a group rather than as individuals, plus Arki, Killcoin, and Lloi provide enough character depth to carry the novel.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the contrast between its narrator and subject matter. Arki is as different from the characters whose exploits he chronicles as can be, not just in the sense that he’s a scribe and they’re soldiers, but also in the amount of worldly experience he’s lived through. You may feel sorry for him because he’s just a naive kid who should have stuck to maintaining merchant ledgers, but at the same time his lack of experience highlights how different the Syldoon are, especially once we learn more about exactly what’s involved in becoming a Syldoon soldier. This creates a fascinating dynamic that sets Scourge of the Betrayer apart from the pack and from the novels it will most often be compared to.
Plot-wise, Scourge of the Betrayer unfortunately feels a little aimless early on. Arkamondos is adjusting to his new position, and the Syldoon are busy with soldierly activities like drinking and cursing. The most notable events in the first hundred or so pages are a bar brawl and a long journey that’s punctuated by a few violent encounters. We know the Syldoon are transporting valuable cargo during that journey, but Arkamondos doesn’t know what it is and so neither does the reader. As a result, there’s unfortunately no real drive to the novel at this point. It’s a journey from point A to point B, but the goal or setting aren’t especially well-defined (yet) so this section ends up being mostly about atmosphere and character development. Luckily Jeff Salyards provides sufficient amounts of both, because otherwise the novel’s early lack of direction might have been a fatal flaw.
As it is, it’s entertaining to follow Arki’s adjustment to life as a Syldoon record keeper who occasionally gets pressed into handling a weapon. He goes through a noticeable evolution, from being unfamiliar with camping in the wild and handling horses to taking it almost for granted towards the end, but he never quite gets the stomach for violence that the real soldiers have. Captain Killcoin is equally fascinating as a character, from his fearsome competence and sharp tongue to his struggles with the mysterious flail Bloodsounder.
It takes until late in the novel to find out what the squad’s true mission is, and even then it’s fairly clear that this story is just an opening chapter in a larger narrative, but luckily Salyards has the writing chops to keep the reader interested until that point. By now, there’s nothing really new about the gritty realism found in this fantasy novel, but Jeff Salyards does an admirable job in its execution. The author has a deft hand with battle scenes: at one point, I found myself looking up pictures of flails to help visualize some of the fights. Jeff Salyards also sets up several plot lines for the future, such as the political structure of the fantasy world, the mysterious godveil, and of course Bloodsounder itself.
If you enjoyed Glen Cook’s Black Company novels or, more recently, the works of Joe Abercrombie, you should have a good time with this solid debut, but thanks to the author’s brilliant decision to use Arki as the narrator, Scourge of the Betrayer offers an interesting twist on the military fantasy pattern. Even though this debut novel sometimes reads like the middle volume in a series due to its lack of direction early on, I have very high hopes for future installments. It’s clear that Jeff Salyards is on his way to creating something worthwhile here. If you’re in the mood for a solid gritty fantasy, give Scourge of the Betrayer a try.