Some of you might know Paul S. Kemp from his Star Wars expanded universe fiction. Some of you might even know him from his Chronicles of Erevis Cale. I didn’t know him at all until an ARC of his latest novel showed up at my door. And now I feel like I just made a new friend.
The Hammer and the Blade is the first of a series starring the dashingly clever heroes Egil and Nix, and Kemp certainly has started off with a bang. This is good old-fashioned high-frolicking fantasy adventure. He’s created a curious and interesting world that I can’t wait to explore, and populated it with a vast cast of characters who practically burst off the page and start chatting you up. With his wise-cracking, swashbuckling protagonists, Kemp hits all the genre high notes and just a touch of the low ones.
The story opens with Egil, the sullen priest of the Momentary God, and Nix Fall, pickpocket and rake extraordinaire, breaking into the tomb of an ancient Afirion wizard. They survive zombies, booby traps, and acid baths all for a golden idol and what the priest not-so-fondly calls magical “gewgaws.” The final obstacle to victory crawls out of the pits of hell, the demonic hell spawn Vik-Thyss. Though the lads manage to kill it with more than a little luck, they inadvertently set off a chain of events that might have been planned from the start.
An evil sorcerer named Rakon was relying on the devil to breed with his two younger sisters, thus keeping his House Norisstru in the black, magically speaking, and bringing new blood into hell. The girls, imprisoned psychic witches Rusilla and Merelda, have an escape plan of their own, and begin to push their human chess pieces around the board. Eventually the grave robbers-cum-brothel owners find themselves pressed into Rakon’s gang as the wizard leads his band of merry men through a blighted landscape full of demons, devils, and all sorts of nefarious creatures, under the ruse of helping him save his sisters. Rakon is up to something, and our heroes may not be strong enough to challenge him.
Did I mention how much fun Egil and Nix are? So. Much. Damn. Fun. They spend most of the book arguing with each other over past mistakes and theologically-tinged philosophy, and every word of it is a pleasure to read. Nix the Lucky is a quick-witted and sharp-tongued ex-street ragamuffin dreaming of a better life, while Egil the lone priest of Ebenor is a laconic family man without a home who is self-sacrificing to a fault. Independently, the thieves would be tiresome and clichéd, but as a pair they are, well, magical. This is a book that begs to be made into a television show. OH EM GEE. Please make this into a tv show. NBC, you owe me for all that crap you pulled with Community. Oh, oh, oh! James Marsters as Nix and bald David Boreanaz as Egil! We already know they can play sexy cads and romantic brooders. Also, this. Awesome. Make it happen.
Sorry, got distracted there for a bit day dreaming about Spike and Angel fighting demons and wizards in an abandoned glass city in an ancient wasteland. Where was I? Oh yes, my review. I guess I’ll end with the one thing I didn’t like, but first I want you to pop over to your local independent bookstore and pre-order The Hammer and the Blade. Done? Good. What I’m about to address is an important issue in SFF, but I think there’s more to the book than this. And it’s most definitely worth your time and money.
Minor-ish spoilers ahoy.
Rusilla and Merelda are the fulcrums of the book. They are the points around which all the plots and subplots circle. They kick off the action, fuel it when it starts to slow, and deliver the final punches. Yet they do it all completely unconscious. Kemp has created two characters with terribly powerful mind magic, girls who are brave, bold, and daring enough to stand up to centuries of rape, abasement, and abuse. And Kemp literally cripples them by having Rakon keep them drugged for most of the book. The characters that should be the most important are given almost no agency. They react to his plans of rape and forced pregnancy by getting Egil and Nix to help them. No, by manipulating them first and then begging.
The only women in the book are incapacitated victims, prostitutes, and kindly old ladies who rarely leave their kitchens. Not every woman in SFF has to be Starbuck or Buffy. Hell, when the zombie apocalypse comes, expect me to do the exact opposite of strapping on some samurai swords and going on an undead killing spree. Look, I get that it’s easier plot-wise to make Rusilla and Merelda sleep their way through survival, but come on. It’s 2012. There should be at least one chick who does something other than scream in terror every thirty seconds or rely on a big strong man to defend her honor. Kemp has wandered into problematic territory—especially pertinent in the wake of the terrible reboot/retcon/clusterfrak of Lara Croft—but at least the girls aren’t total damsels in distress. They don’t physically fight back, but at least they try to get other people to do it for them. I
hope suspect further entries in the series will give the girls more action.
Other than that, I loved it. No, seriously, I really did. The Hammer and the Blade is about as sword and sorcery as it gets. The plot relies as much on Egil’s hammers as it does on Nix’s faulty and imperfect grasp of magic. It’s pretty straightforward, when all’s said and done. You know before the heroes do that their plans for wealth and glory are about to go horribly awry, but watching them try to dig their way out is exciting and entertaining. As soon as I finished it, I tracked down my copy of Mike Mignola’s version of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and reveled in rediscovering this thrilling little subgenre. Martin, Miéville, and Gaiman are literary wonders, but sometimes you don’t want hard answers to hard questions. Sometimes you just want to watch the Governator in a silly hat battling giant rubber snakes and to remember a time when Val Kilmer was still hot.