It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand.
Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.
I completely missed out on Jon Sprunk’s previous series, the Shadow Saga, despite hearing lots of good stuff about it and definitely being interested. Sometimes you just don’t get around to a series. When I was contacted about reviewing the first in Sprunk’s newest series, I said yes with alacrity as it seemed a good point to finally read the author’s work and the book sounded quite interesting. And it was interesting, but not just in a positive way. I had very mixed feelings reading Blood and Iron due to some of the elements in the setting, characterization and its pacing. Yet once the story finally found its groove, or perhaps I found my feet within the narrative, the story was entertaining and kept me reading wanting to find out what happened.
To start off with what I found problematic. The Empire of Akishia is a rather jumbled together mix of Ancient Egypt, Hellenistic Greece, the Roman Empire, and several other Near Eastern cultures with the serial numbers filed off. At least that was how it came across to me and these elements kept jarring me out of the narrative, as I kept thinking oh this is Roman, this is Egyptian and so on. And it’s not that Sprunk doesn’t create an interesting society in Akeshia, because he certainly does, but some elements just felt too familiar and didn’t really blend together. The Crusade that the Arnossi are undertaking against the Akeshii reinforces the sense of cultural divide along East/West culture and religion, which consequently made Horace feel a bit too much like the White Saviour, come to show the Akeshii the error of their heathen ways.
That isn’t to say that this is all there is to Horace’s character. While I had mixed feelings about him, due to the whole White Saviour shtick and the fact that the other three main characters all fall in some form of love with him, I did rather like him. Sprunk draws out the revelations about Horace’s past, revealing quite early on that he has lost his wife and son, but only giving us the whole of the story in drips and drabs throughout the novel, creating pathos for Horace, but also a draw to find out what makes Horace tick. His sudden development of what the Akeshii call zoana, a form of elemental magic, rescues him from a life of slavery, but also puts him in a position that he doesn’t really know how to cope with. I really liked the concept of the zoana and the way that nobility was connected to this–only those who have zoana can be so-called zoanii, the nobles with true power.
While I liked Horace on the whole, my favourite character was the ex-gladiator Jirom. I loved Jirom, because of his past as a mercenary and gladiator and because what sets him apart is his sexuality. Jirom is gay and I liked that in the context of the Akeshian Empire this isn’t a problem, there are several such pairings mentioned quite in passing, even if in other places in Sprunk’s world it is taboo. The one thing that really bothered me about Jirom was the constant mention of his aching back due to an old injury, as is rather felt like a Chekov’s gun that was never fired, at least not in this book. I did like his storyline best, as he is the Spartacus figure in this book even if he’s not the inspirational leader of the revolt. The third viewpoint we get is Alyra. Alyra is nice, with an interesting back story, but she falls into the trap of letting her agency revolve around Horace once she meets him, instead of keeping it for herself, which I found disappointing.
The last main character we get a direct point of view for is Queen Byleth. She was the one who confused me the most as she generally doesn’t seem to be an evil person – I mean yes, she has slavery in her kingdom which is bad, but she sincerely seems to want to do the right thing for her country – yet she cruelly has a child whipped to teach Alyra a lesson about tardiness and Alyra hates her and thinks she’s cruel and unjust. This confusion may stem from the fact that Byleth seems to swing between kindness and cruelty in her own PoV and we only see her through Horace’s somewhat smitten gaze and Alyra’s hostile one; it’s hard to discern what’s objective and what has been coloured by their opinion of her. Her viziers, Astaptah and Mulcibar were both mysterious, though the former is clearly more of the school of Jafar, while the latter is a delight. Mulcibar is a lovely opaque character, who at first blush seems not that friendly and I loved the way the friendship between him and Horace developed.
Around the midway point of Blood and Iron the narrative reached a tipping point for me. Before that I found it hard to get into the narrative and I kept getting ‘distracted’. I even actively discussed putting the book down as it was a bit of a slog, but as I try to finish what I start book-wise, I kept reading and I’m glad I did, because the latter half was quite gripping. So, mixed feelings overall, but I’d give it a cautious recommendation. If you like traditional Sword & Sorcery, but moving on somewhat of an epic scope, then you’ll probably enjoy Blood and Iron, yet if you dislike classic tropes, then perhaps you might want to skip this one.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.