Over the course of his first six books, Sam Sykes has worked very hard to illustrate his vision of what fantasy fiction can be, focusing not just on epic battles between magic users, but also on the price they pay, and what the horrors they see can do to their heart, mind, and soul. He shows us not just the heroes of an age working together to vanquish a great evil, but also the horrendous friction that can result from a half-dozen very different people working together, and the sense that maybe that there’s more to the story behind that great evil than one might suspect. And there’s not just the sweat and steam of flirting between protagonists on display, but also the agonizing heart-pain of loving someone who you fear you’ll never understand, and who is just as scared that you’ll leave them before they have a chance to open up.
For Sam Sykes, fantasy is much more than what we’ve come to expect; it has to have some nuance, some damn heart, while also presenting the reader with massive, magical battles that are so intense that they make you feel as if you’re about to fly out of your seat.
If you agree with that thesis statement, then Seven Blades in Black, Sykes’s newest novel in his Grave of Empires series, is categorically for you.
Meet Sal the Cacophony. Chained up, bereft of her infamous weapon (the dragon-headed Cacophony best known for firing magical bullets), and held by officers of the Revolution, Sal’s in a tough spot. She’s about to die, or so she’s told. But not before she answers some questions about the swath of destruction she’s been involved in for the last few weeks, and about the names she’s keeping on the list in her pocket. Even knowing that execution is coming, Sal’s in no rush. She’ll spin this yarn in her own time, in her own way. It’s a yarn about the turncoat mages of the once-Imperium. It’s about a land called the Scar barely hanging on to any sense of life. It’s about being loved and hating that you’re going to hurt someone before you can actually love them the way they deserve. It’s about a girl, a gun, a grudge, and what happens when revenge becomes your life.
So begins Seven Blades in Black, with Sal the Cacophony telling the reader her story. And from page one, Sykes doesn’t let up. Starting several weeks prior, Sal jumps into her story of vengeance across the Scar, a desolate and barren wasteland home to mages, Revolutionaries, Imperium spies, cultists, monsters, assassins, and much, much more. This novel is packed to the brim with worldbuilding, much of it incredibly chewy and thought-provoking, as Sykes unravels the complex history between the Imperium and the Revolution, which is as much about magic as it is about autonomy. The balance that Sykes strikes here—between introducing knowledge to the reader and going ninety miles an hour towards the next plot objective—is very well executed, and comes off as the work of someone in absolute charge of his craft. Even when the story is rocketing toward its next destination, there’s always a second to breathe and fully contemplate a new facet of the world, and vice versa—just when you think you have a quiet moment to catch your breath, a brand-new horror or enemy or monstrosity comes plummeting from the sky and you’re off running again.
Of course, a story like this is nothing without strong characters, and Sykes has succeeded on that front in spades, populating the Scar with a bevy of bastards, mages, engineers, soldiers, spies, and more, all painted with a delicate touch; in this broken world, where everyone is just trying to survive, people don’t have much time to argue about morality. From Cavric Proud, a fresh-faced officer of the Revolution and a deep believer in their mission, to Liette, a scary-brilliant Freemaker and lover of Sal who keeps getting hurt by her and yet always comes back, Sal has surrounded herself with a motley crew of survivors; she is the unscalable wall they all continually bounce off.
And what of Sal herself? Sykes has succeeded in creating a thorny, complex, complicated, and broken protagonist, whose soul is so bruised, whose heart is so broken, that her idea of helping her friends is to continue to push them away from her; after all, when you’re someone who has been through hell and has been left shattered, what good is reaching for someone else’s hand? All you’ll leave them with is broken glass in their palm, and pain. But Sal, for all her beliefs about herself, and all her vicious ideas about how the world works, cannot walk away from doing the right thing. Walking the line between hero and anti-hero, Sal the Cacophony is a difficult, broken woman that I couldn’t help but root for at every moment.
Seven Blades in Black is a massive book, but it speeds by at a quick clip, as Sal keeps the narrative moving and Sykes moves back and forth in time between the death sentence interview and the story itself. Could it have been streamlined some? Sure; there’s more than one occasion when Sal does go on, describing events and details with bombast, adding flavor to the story she’s telling. But then again, that bombast, that flavor, that point of view of a woman who knows the Scar and this story so intimately—that’s exactly what makes the book work so well; tackling a few extra pages of such descriptive and delicious prose as filtered through the inimitable Sal is a small price to pay for a great read.
Sam Sykes has taken his talent for fantasy and all of his ideas of what the genre could be, what it can and should strive for, and distilled them all into Seven Blades in Black. A rich, thoughtful story about broken people, oppressive systems, and the cost of vengeance, populated by characters who live in the middle of the moral gray zone and will keep your eyes glued to the page, Seven Blades in Black delivers all of that complexity and epic battles between mages, fought while on the backs of giant birds in the middle of a magically-haunted wasteland. Come and join Sal and the Cacophony for a story—I guarantee you won’t guess how it ends.
Seven Blades in Black is available from Orbit.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.