I began Scourge of the Betrayer expecting a Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Glen Cook orgy. Something I’m sure all three of those men have long dreamed about, but only Morgan could write (Steel Remains joke intended). It’s on the cover after all (their names, not the orgy). As a reviewer, expectations are a no-no, but when the publisher puts them in my face, what’s a guy to do? As it turns out, the only one of those names I would truly associate with Jeff Salyards’s debut novel is Glen Cook, and only then for the narrative style. Instead, I found an extremely unique take on the fantasy genre that shares more commonality with one of my favorite 2011 science fiction novels, Germline by T.C. McCarthy.
Like Germline, Scourge is all about a writer outsider who finds himself in the middle of a war he’s completely unprepared for. In this case, the outsider is Arkamondos (Arki), a scribe of no repute who gets offered the chance to follow a Syldoon company into enemy territory and record all that he sees. Of course, the Syldoon are up to more than they initially appear and Arki is in way over his head. Told entirely in first person, Scourge is foremost a character study. Salyards puts the reader inside the head of a naive, scared, and incapable Arki, who is revolted by and attracted to his subjects in equal measure.
Interestingly, the character study I speak of isn’t so much Arki, but Captain Braylor Killcoin, the secretive leader of the company, and his merry band of slaves turned soldiers turned guerrillas turned brooding veterans. The narrator becomes the cipher through which the reader perceives reality and thereby the other characters. No one gets a pass. By that I mean the typical fantasy protagonist would justify the commission of violence in a cause and laude the skill. It’s seen time and again in the genre. Arki reflects those values much differently. He pities the soldiers for the ease with which they kill while fearing and envying them for the same. In a world hard boiled, Arki is anything but and his perceptions, and therefore the reader’s, reflect that skepticism. Not to say that he’s uninteresting, but readers will attach themselves to Scourge, and look forward to its sequel, not for more Arki, but for more interpretation of the events he witnesses.
The world itself is fairly bland. Unlike other recent first person fantasies, Among Thieves (Hulick) and Prince of Thorns (Lawrence) coming quickest to mind, Scourge has very little that I would call world building. Other than a brief section in the latter parts of the books where Arki learns who the Syldoon are, and what they represent, the nuance and the texture of the world could be anywhere. It’s not unique, or vibrant. The reason isn’t that Salyards lacks creativity, rather it demonstrates a commitment to his narrative style. He never breaks out of Arki’s perceptions to become didactic. He creates a sense of wonder and mystery not by the specialness of his imagination, but by withholding his narrator’s access to information.
It’s that which calls Glen Cook so strongly to mind. The Black Company series, one of the most significant works for modern fantasy, is told through the point of view of Croaker, the company’s doctor and annalist. Cook focuses on character over milieu, and more importantly on the social dynamics of soldiers in a fantasy world. What separates the two is Salyards’s use of Arki’s status as observer. Croaker is the quintessential insider and an active participant in the action — he lacks perspective. Using Arki, Salyards creates a wholly different paradigm that reflects on the fantasy genre and the nature of violence in a way that’s entirely unique.
This uniqueness does not always lead to the most compelling read. Scourge is the definition of a slow burn, beginning in a small faceless town, continuing with long stretches of reflection over barely textured wilderness, and ending without a denouement that genre readers have come to expect. Even the prose shows more workmanlike efficiency than dazzling style, opting to preserve Arki’s status as a painfully average chronicler. Despite that, I found myself coming back to it every night. The haunting nature of Killcoin and Arki’s revelatory witnessing of his life, carries the novel, delivering one of the most unique fantasy reading experiences I’ve had.
It should come as no surprise that it’s a Night Shade published title. Putting aside its similarity to Glen Cook, one of Night Shade’s most prolific authors, Scourge of the Betrayer screams ‘new voice’. Like last year’s God’s War (Hurley), it isn’t reinterpreting old genre conventions, but finding entirely new pathways. Once again I find myself applauding Night Shade for its editorial vision, further cementing them as my go to source for something I’ve never seen before. I can’t wait to read whatever’s next for Jeff Salyards. His debut can’t be considered anything but a tremendous success.