SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER by Jeff Salyards (Book Review)
‘All empires crumble. All borders change. All kingdoms die. Where I’m taking you, you’ll witness the death of a body politic, the expiration of a way of life, the redrawing of a map. Something singular and priceless.’
Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards is the first instalment in the Bloodsounder’s Arc trilogy. This is a book which I’d actually heard very little about, that is until both Laura Hughes and Petrik Leo recommended it to me. It actually took very little to convince me that I would need to buy a copy; the words ‘grimdark’, ‘humorous’, and ‘a character who uses the phrase horsec*nt’ was literally all it took!
It just goes to prove that recommending books, shouting about your favourites, spreading the word so to speak, has the potential to really benefit another reader. After finishing Scourge of the Betrayer I feel like I’ve truly read a hidden gem.
Right from the opening I found Salyards writing to be simultaneously sophisticated but also gritty when needed. This initial aspect drew me into the book, held my curiosity, and I immediately felt compelled to read on. The story is told through the eyes of a young scribe – Arki. His first-person narration drives the narrative along as we follow this anxious and painfully naive protagonist. You see, our poor Arki is thrust into a situation which lands him clearly far out of his depth.
Enter Captain Braylar Killcoin; leader of a ruthless mercenary warband, hailed from the infamous Syldoon empire. Killcoin hires Arki to chronicle every detail of the warband’s journey – of which largely remains a mystery to both Arki and to us. Sheltered and inexperienced, Arki jumps at the chance of leaving his relatively boring and stiflingly safe home, in exchange for an adventure and for the prospects of earning fame. Yet Arki doesn’t quite realise what he’s let himself in for, as I said, our Arki is oh so naive. So when he begins to realise, when he discovers just how perilous this journey is, well reader, settle down, get yourself comfortable, because you’re in for one immensely entertaining ride.
I must say that although Scourge of the Betrayer is classed as grimdark, Salyards brings a wholly welcomed refreshing take on the genre. He breaks through the bounds of what one would traditionally expect of a main grimdark protagonist – morally grey, somewhat unpleasant. Instead, Salyard opts to craft Arki’s character to be charming, refined, almost aristocratic, and notably virtuous. Then to set him in a world where savage men and creatures roam, at every turn violence ensues, to have him be amongst the likes of Killcoin and his grizzled, foul-tempered and foul-mouthed warriors, provided so much fun and comedic effect. Arki spends a lot of his time horrified by the violent deeds he is obliged to see and record – at every step I couldn’t help either laughing out loud at the contrast of characters, or pitying Arki. It was a pleasure to be immersed in this world.
‘You haven’t lived until you’ve grieved. Death, life, together, the same. And if you’ve only experienced life you’re only half-alive.’
However at times, the pace could often waver into being slow and lacking in action. Salyards does have a few sections where our main focus lies upon the mundane day-to-day aspects of life, and for a large portion of the novel we are left unclear as to where the narrative is heading. Whilst this may be an issue for some, for myself this was not necessarily a negative point. Sure there were paragraphs which I felt could have been cut, I also wished the chapters had been shortened, but overall I feel Salyards does a fantastic job of using these details to give the book an ultra-realistic quality. Arki is a scribe after all, and so part of his recordings would include details such as caring for horses, mending armour, journeying in silence or even small talk; inevitably there would be a sense of routine emerging. As for not knowing where the narrative was heading, I was happy with that too, because Arki’s voice is so endearing, I was satisfied with being carried along. As a reader, we feel as anxious, shocked, confused, and we long for answers, just as Arki does.
I’ve talked much about the main protagonist, so now I shall highlight a few of my other favourites. Firstly Braylar Killcoin – a man who on the surface appears brutish, and callous, but actually is well skilled in the art of manipulation and politics. His unique choice of weaponry was something that attracted my attention; you see, he uses a Flail called a Bloodsounder. I was awed by this weapon and the power it entailed, none of which I will divulge here, but know that the Flail is deadly but causes dire consequences for the wielder as a result of its use. It is not the ultimate weapon that can destroy all either, but it is certainly powerful nonetheless.
Lastly my two particular favourites from Killcoin’s mercenary band were; Mulldoos & Lloi. Both of which were crude and quick to anger, but both having a caring complex hidden underneath. I believe Salyards really shines through with creating these juxtaposing traits in all his characters, because they feel all the more real, which in turn made me feel much for them without even realising it. I was not aware how much I would miss them, until I felt their loss.