Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes (Book Review)
Like its snarky and reckless heroine, Sal the Cacophony, Seven Blades in Black is a whole lot of trouble in a tightly wound package. With a framing device that alternates between third person (the perspective of Sal’s captor) and 1st person (Sal recounting her latest disasterpiece of an adventure before her scheduled execution) the book starts with a bang and barrels on like a runaway world boss, as the body count grows and the threats do too. It feels like Sykes has barely finished throwing one absolute badass at our heroine and her Big F*** Off Gun (Sal’s words, not mine) before another shows up and starts a fight.
Sam Sykes has described this book as a love letter to the Final Fantasy videogame series, but for me, it bore more resemblance to a season of a particular flashy anime merged with the duology of Kill Bill. Like the Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s films, Sal was horrifically wronged by those she once trusted, survived despite their best efforts, and is now obsessed with crossing off a list of people who happen to be total badasses. Every name on her list is a chapter-long fight waiting to happen.
Everything in Sykes’ latest book oozes style, from its gruesome and sacrificial magic to its loads of steampunk tech to the epic clashes between Sal and some very bad people who have literally smashed whole armies into paste. Every few chapters of Seven Blades in Black feels like a complete episode of a stylish anime you’d binge on Netflix or Amazon, featuring a single explosion-filled fight or a particularly interesting discovery that builds on the larger season arc and (often) flips what you think you know about the story on its head.
The choice to switch between a third person story and a first person arc (Sal’s own words) ensures the book can also keep us guessing with an “unreliable narrator” device, as we often know only what Sal tells us, rather than an unbiased accounting of her adventure. Everything we learn about Sal’s quest for revenge comes from Sal herself, which allows her wonderful voice to tell her story her way and allows her (and Sykes) to keep some surprises until just before they explode. To avoid spoilers, I’ll only say I thought the choice to have Sal tell her story worked well, and boy did it pay off in the end.
While Sal has support (Liette and Cavric, two nice people who would very much like her to stop killing people before she kills herself) Seven Blades in Black is much less of an ensemble piece than Sykes’ Bring Down Heaven series. While it has the same mix of brutal action, horrific monsters, and hilarious one-liners as those books, it’s instead the story of one relentless woman (Sal) on a very messed up journey to kill some very messed up people, and all the stuff she wrecks on the way. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, just a difference to be aware of if you’re expecting another The City Stained Red. Sal is largely a solo act.
Yet despite staying firmly in Sal’s perspective (when we aren’t in the few chapters featuring the woman who is planning to execute her) both Cavric (a Revolutionary soldier who gets roped into things when Sal, well, carjacks him at gunpoint) and Liette (Sal’s on-again, off-again love interest, and a truly talented steampunk engineer) both get plenty to do. Sal’s occasionally appearing allies are fun, well drawn characters who I really hope we get to see again in the sequel, and in the book’s darker moments, it is both gripping and painful to see how badly Liette and Cavric want to save Sal … and how (and why) she simply isn’t ready to be saved. And while Sal’s motivations seem clear at the start, they get a whole lot more messy by the end.
To sum up, Sykes has given us yet another often gripping, often hilarious, and often horrifying adventure in an ancient and extremely messed up fantasy/steampunk world, with an endearingly snarky protagonist who can’t help wrecking things and people everywhere she goes. I’d recommend this book to fans of everything from Kill Bill to Kill la Kill to Final Fantasy (particularly VI and VIII) and Warhammer. Also, there’s giant flying birds ridden by armored knights with Big F*** Off Guns, so if you thought Joust or Fire Emblem was cool, you might get a kick out of this one as well.