Jeff Salyards – Scourge of the Betrayer

Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies–or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon’s dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he’s about to find out for himself.

Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men’s enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he’s killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.

Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience!

When I read Justin’s review for Scourge of the Betrayer, I thought this would be a book I’d love to read. Not too long after I was approached by its author to review it, something which I readily agreed to. It’s not often my wishes are catered to this efficiently! And the book was just as good as Justin made it out to be. It’s a good military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, a comparison reinforced by the book’s narrator, who is a chronicler just as Cook’s Croaker is, albeit a lot less martial than the latter.

Scourge of the Betrayer starts somewhat in medias res. Not in regard to Arki’s story; no, we join him at the start of his association with Killcoin’s Syldoon company, but in regard to whatever the company is up to and as such it’s not completely clear what the greater plot is. This would be my greatest complaint with the book. It made me jump out of the narrative at times, wondering what they were doing and why they were doing what they were doing, but other than making me wonder, it doesn’t really take away from the reading experience. Plus by the end of the book, the reader is pretty much in the know on what the company was doing in Alespell and what their orders seem to be. However, if anything, this book is setting up Arki as chronicler of the company and him finding his feet within the group and committing to being part of their activities, to becoming totally embedded in the band. His assimilation into the group is gradual and seeping; Arki is horrified by Braylar’s casual violence and made uncomfortable by the many secrets they seem to keep from him, but he is slowly drawn in, until he surprises himself by the choices he makes, such as getting involved in one of the band’s violent altercations and his decision to stay at the ending of the book.

Due to the nature of the story, characterisation is key; if the characters aren’t believable, the story won’t engage the reader. Arki is a great character in this respect; he’s likeable, a bit of an Everyman: he doesn’t possess great martial prowess or special powers; he is a scribe, with perhaps better than average observational skills. The reader can identify with him, without it slipping into Gary Sue-territory.  The Syldoon soldiers are wonderfully portrayed. While Braylar is violent, secretive and frightening, he is also unexpectedly sympathetic. I liked him more than expected, especially after we learn about the price he pays for wielding Bloodsounder. The bond between the men is also shown in a wonderful manner, from the gruff banter at table, the name-calling exchanges between Hewspear and Mulldoos, which seem to mask a deep respect and comradeship, and a soldier’s heartfelt grief at the loss of his best friend. Loyalty is of paramount importance to these men, something borne out in their treatment of Lloi. Lloi is a Grass Dog, a woman from one of the plains-dwelling tribes largely considered barbarians and the enemy, but because she’s fiercely loyal to Braylar and would lay down her life for his without hesitation, they may treat her as nothing but an inconvenient necessity, but they respect her nonetheless.

Scourge of the Betrayer is a wonderful read, even with the question of ‘where is this going?’ haunting me for most of the book. There are some major questions raised in this first book in Bloodsounder’s Arc – what is Bloodsounder anyway, beyond a really scary flail? – and I can’t wait for book two return to Arki and the Syldoon and get some answers. Scourge of the Betrayer is a strong debut, and in a year where I’ve read some very strong debuts, this one measures up to the best of them. Jeff Salyards is definitely one to watch for the future.

This book was provided for review by the author.

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