Even the most fervent fantasy fans would admit, I think, that the genre sometimes tends towards the tedious. Too often, the term epic is misunderstood to mean massive. Length is mistaken for depth, development is traded for needless detail; an accumulation of confusion rules rather than a convincing attempt at complexity.
Authors great and small are guilty of this over-valuation of size as opposed to substance. To name a few of the most notable, I would argue that Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks could be—to put it politely—better edited. Certainly they seem to subscribe to the more is more school of thought… yet I’d gleefully read and in all likelihood relish anything either writes in a heartbeat, because both have the courage of their convictions.
I don’t know if A. J. Smith does, or if he should be counted amongst such acclaimed company, but his first fantasy novel has a lot in common with the work of the aforementioned pair: it shares in the wealth of several of their strengths, as well as making, I’m afraid, many of the same mistakes. At points, The Black Guard is boring, boilerplate, and overbearing. At its best, however, it’s the equal of either author’s archives: ambitious, engrossing and positively action-packed.
The Black Guard begins with the death of a drunk, Sir Leon Great Claw, over a simple slight by his squire. Lost in thought, young Randall of Darkwald accidentally empties a piss-pot on a priest of the order of the Purple. The priest comes a-calling for an apology, but the old knight is having none of it; he hates purples with a passion, and—uninhibited as he is—says as much. Brother Torian has no choice but to challenge the drunk to a duel, which he wins. In short order, Randall inherits Great Claw’s longsword, and is hired, entirely to his surprise, by his late master’s murderer.
The scene seems set for a fairly farcical coming of age tale, but though Randall remains on the periphery of chapter two, which is depicted from the perspective of Brother Utha—a chaplain of the Black church who accompanies Torian on his quest to capture a deposed Duke’s surviving son—another 200 pages pass before we hear from Randall again. And we can only count on his company once more over the course of the two parts of The Black Guard.
The decision, then, to begin with him, and the trifling narrative thread he represents, is a strange one: a problematic positioning of Randall over The Black Guard’s other characters. But if the truth be told, we don’t spend much longer with any of the many familiar fantasy figures which populate Smith’s initially diffident debut. Several stand out in retrospect—specifically the honourable Northman, Magnus Forkbeard Ragnarson, and the Kirin assassin Rham Jas Rami, who “has given up on goodness”—but at the outset, the only character I cared about was the world.
And what a world it is! There are the rebellious Freelands of Ranen, the pseudo-civilised sprawl of Ro below, and across the Kirin Ridge, bleak, mysterious Karesia. Representing the lattermost lands are seven insidious sisters, purportedly followers of the fire god, who set the overarching story in motion. Each “as beautiful and dangerous as a flame,” they have installed themselves in positions of power in both Ro and Ranen in order to enact “the final stages of a long game [...] being played out in the lands of men.”
The enchantress Ameira has the ear of the lord of the former fiefdom, in fact. It will come no surprise that she played a part in the selfsame King’s decision to invade Ro Canarn for its Duke’s defiance.
Ro Canarn had been a lively coastal city, full of activity and rarely quiet. Hasim had spent many happy nights here, drinking and laughing with Magnus before Duke Hector had made his fatal mistake and tried to break away from the king of Tor Funweir. He had been in the city when the warning horn sounded from the southern battlements and the Red battle fleet had appeared. And now, four days later, the city was like a tomb, deathly quiet and safe only for the knights of the Red and their allies.
The Red, incidentally, are the armed forces of Ro: “dour men who lived only to follow orders and to maintain the laws of the One,” which is to say the One God, though the One God is not the only God we encounter in The Black Guard. Far from it, in fact.
But back to the plot; there is, after all, an awful lot. Inevitably, the daring Duke is executed for crimes against the empire, however his son and daughter, Bromvy and Bronwyn, give the King the slip. Thereafter, a decree is passed, naming both to the Black Guard, which is a means of identifying “those whose family had betrayed the crown. It was a brand placed on the cheek to identify a man as belonging to a dishonourable house. Brom [and Bronwyn] had been named to the Black Guard, but not yet captured and branded.”
Nor will they be, if either has any say in the matter. To that end, Bromvy enlists the assistance of Rham Jas Rami, who introduces him to the Dokkalfar: outcasts he hopes will help him win Canarn back. Bronwyn, meanwhile, seeks the sanctuary of the Grass Sea, with the Red army hot on her heels.
It’s only once the pair have finally finished escaping that The Black Guard gets good, and I’m afraid that takes half of the tale to square away. The break between books one and two is also the point at which Algenon—Magnus’ brother and Thane of the Northmen—launches his indomitable Dragon Fleet against the King of Ro’s forces. Why? Because that’s what his God wants. Rowanoco said so Himself, you see.
All the while, the dead are rising, and all that lives is in terrible peril, apparently.
“A. J. Smith has been devising the worlds, histories and characters of The Long War chronicles for over a decade,” reads the press release that came with my galley of The Black Guard. The worlds and histories I can credit. The author may take an inordinate amount of time putting the pieces together, but once they’re in place, the story’s setting is superb. Smith imparts an impression that this world will go on even without us; that it has for many centuries already.
The characters, alas, are frankly forgettable. We’ve talked about the best of them already; the worst of them, however, lay this inaugural record of The Long War low. Most are painted in broad strokes only, and a not insignificant number are utterly redundant. In addition, there are so very many perspectives that few develop discernibly. Smith’s mode of storytelling seems to be to move one cog an infinitesimal distance, then adjust several others incrementally. It takes so long for these workings to bear on one another in any meaningful manner that I began to wonder if the machine of our metaphor was in working order at all.
It is, ultimately… it just takes an age to warm up properly. But be assured that the second part of The Black Guard is markedly more absorbing than the first. Certain characters come together—characters which play better with one another than they do independently—and there’s some fantastic action, finally. On the basis of book two, I’d heartily recommend this chronicle of The Long War; if not unreservedly, then with far fewer caveats than I have as it stands. Unfortunately, I can think of few more convincing illustrations of the argument I outlined at the outset of this article—that less is more, more or less—than The Black Guard’s woefully bloated beginning.
The Black Guard is available now as an ebook from Head of Zeus.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.