Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual. The Syldoonian Emperor, Cynead, has solidified his power in unprecedented ways, and Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be complicated and dangerous. Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and Soffjian are at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is unsurprisingly small. But it is filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian.
Two years ago I was very impressed with Jeff Salyards’ debut Scourge of the Betrayer. I enjoyed this tale of a young, naive scribe hired by a ruthless band of soldiers as their company’s chroniclers enormously and I was looking forward to reading the second book in the series Veil of the Deserters. Unfortunately, due to the folding and subsequent sale of his publishers, Night Shade Books, to Skyhorse Publishing the publication of the book was delayed and we had to wait until a few months ago to be able to return to Arki’s story. But it certainly was a joyful reunion.
In hindsight, I might have needed to reread Scourge of the Betrayer. Salyards doesn’t coddle the reader with recaps or other explicit reminders of what has gone before and after two years I found myself grasping after details of what exactly happened in Scourge of the Betrayer. Yet it doesn’t detract from enjoying the story and after a chapter or two things started coming back to me. What didn’t take long at all though, was to remember why I enjoyed Salyards’ writing so much. From the first page Arki’s voice and the tone of the book is clear. It’s a mixture of wry humour, naiveté and grit, one that I found irresistible.
Arki, or Arkamondos to give him his proper name, is a wonderful character. He is the story’s narrator and our window onto the world of the Syldoon Empire. It’s often a distorted view, shaped by Arki’s decidedly non-martial nature and his conviction that he is not cut out to be a hero. Arki is a scholar pur sang and happiest with ink on his fingers and book dust in his nose, yet he keeps surprising himself, the Syldoon, and the reader by taking risks and decisions that are remarkably heroic, even if not always well-executed. He grows in his role as archivist to Captain Braylar Killcoin’s band of Syldoon, becoming more sure of himself, his position in the group, his worth to the Syldoon, and his loyalty to Braylar. It’s reflected in his observations of the Syldoon around him and Braylar and his lieutenants in particular; they become less and less intimidated and more direct and critical. He doesn’t feel as a twig swept along by the river as much and more as an oarsman deciding his own course.
One of the reasons Arki seems more at home among the Syldoon is his growing friendship with Vendurro. The band’s remaining sergeant, he’s a junior officer and closer to Arki in age than Braylar, Hewspear, and Mulldoos. He’s also quite funny and, like Arki, a poser of awkward and inappropriate questions. He often doesn’t know when to keep his mouth closed, sometimes to comedic effect and sometimes allowing Salyards to drop in some more world building. Arki also gets a better read on Braylar’s character and seems on surer ground with him. He also learns more about Braylar’s history, some of it in surprisingly frank confessions by Braylar others through accident or eavesdropping. One of the reasons we learn more about Braylar is that his band of soldiers is joined by two memoridons, or memory witches, one of whom is his sister Soffjian. I really liked Soffjian and her companion Skeelana, who turn out to be as dangerous, or perhaps even more dangerous than the Syldoon. The memoridons are a fascinating element of Syldoon society and one we fortunately learn more about in this book, especially once we reach Sunwrack, the capital of the Syldoon Empire.
Sunwrack was awesome in every sense of the word. I love the palpable sense of awe Salyards invokes in Arki when he first sees Sunwrack, only letting it increase the further he gets into the city. Sunwrack is also a hotbed of political wrangling and plotting. We learn more about the details of what becoming a Syldoon brother entails and it isn’t pretty. What happens with the current Emperor, Cynead, is unexpected, if not out of character as to become a Syldoon emperor means having an excessive dose of ambition and an unhealthy sense of pride.
One of my major complaints with Scourge of the Betrayer was the fact that due to Arki being the first person narrator and largely being kept in the dark as to the Syldoon’s true plans, meant that the reader was kept in the dark as well and perhaps a little too much and too long. In Veil of the Deserters Arki slowly discovers more of the Syldoon’s true intentions and ambitions, with the speed of revelations increasing the closer we get to the ending of the book. Yet, while I was glad to finally get a clearer idea of Braylar’s plans and where the plot is heading, it still took rather long for these facts to finally crystallise. Arki still needs to fully gain Braylar’s trust at the start of the book and it is only at the end that he has finally won it and information is shared more freely with him. I hope that in the next book Arki is kept in the loop and events and motivations won’t be as much of a mystery.
Veil of the Deserters is a terrific sequel to Scourge of the Betrayer. One that builds on the framework Salyards created in the previous book, expanding the world and developing the characters in organic, but unexpected, ways. The book can be read without having read the previous book and Veil of the Deserters doesn’t really suffer too badly from second book syndrome. However, the ending of the book is somewhat of a cliff hanger and as such the book doesn’t truly standalone. If you like military fantasy reminiscent of Glen Cook and well-written battles and dialogue then Veil of the Deserters is a book you certainly won’t want to miss. I had a great time with Arki and his comrades and I hope we won’t have as long a wait as last time to find out what happens next.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.