Thanks to the lovely folks over at Netgalley, I have yet another ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) to talk about this week. Snakewood, by Adrian Selby, is a fantastic vengeance story that takes a spin on the dark mercenaries trope. It follows the story of a mercenary company in retirement as they are slowly assassinated, while desperately trying to figure out who is killing them off and why. The book reminds me of one of my favorite series of all time, The Black Company, but unfortunately is not quite able to live up to the majesty of that series’ legacy. However, before we talk about its shortcomings, let’s talk about the book’s strength – the story.
As I mentioned, Snakewood is the story of a mercenary company in retirement. We follow the remnants of “The Twenty”, a small squad of soldiers who reportedly could win any battle and turn any tide. They were legendary fighters for hire in a land filled with mercenary armies, and were highly sought after in their day. However, their glory days passed and the remnants of the once great company split up and went on their way. This changes when the leader of The Twenty realizes that his old members are slowly being picked off by an assassin, and he tries to bring them back together from their various lives to figure out what is happening. The story is told from multiple POV’s in The Twenty, as we see them in their various lives trying to escape death. Meanwhile, we are also shown the perspective of the assassin in question as she hunts down The Twenty for a crime they committed against her at a place called Snakewood many years ago.
Initially I was highly skeptical when I was told I would be reading about a set of twenty men who were able to take on entire armies. Magic in the world is scarce, and most fights are won with a combination of martial skill and berserker potions that soldiers drink to grant them improved abilities on the battlefield. While The Twenty were supposed to have access to the best potions available, it seemed a little unreasonable to claim that they could beat thousands of men in combat alone. This is why I was so excited to learn that The Twenty’s power came not from their individual combat prowess, but from the fact that each of them was a master of a different aspect of warfare. One of them is a master of siegecraft, one of cavalry, one of politics, one of blade & armor, and so on. Using their mass knowledge of warcraft, they functioned as a “rent-a-general’ and joined conflicts. They used their knowledge to turn tides. This to me was the most appealing aspects of the book, as I really enjoyed learning about this specialised group and the tactics they employed to win conflicts. In addition, it was really interesting to see where each of them had gone after the break up. The Twenty landed in all walks of life after they broke up, and it leads to a really nice variety of interactions as the assassin tracks them down in farmsteads, courtrooms, armies, and other forms of retirement. The assassin herself is also handled well, revealing the mystery of her past as a slow burn instead of a grand reveal. The slow piecing together of her backstory kept me invested a long time.
However, that investment was damaged heavily by some issues with the quality and style of writing. To begin with, while the characters and world caught my interest, the world building and character growth are not good enough. A major part of the book revolves around “Brews”, alchemical potions that people take to improve their fighting ability. There is a lot of emphasis placed on how the different qualities of Brews would produce different results, however it was not until about 45% into the book that you are told a single difference between the Brews the mercenaries are taking. In addition, the book goes out of the way to be excessively dark. I am a fan of darker, gritty series, but authors should be careful with how they use trauma in stories in order to make scenes edgier. Characters were often introduced in horrible situations such as rape, torture, and slavery, which seemed over the top as I had zero attachment to these characters. As a result many of these scenes felt included for shock value and drew me out of the story. Finally, the character POVs change erratically and are often quite hard to follow for the first half of the book. It took me a longer time than I would like to feel comfortable reading the book or to feel like I had a grasp of what was going on.
Snakewood had a premise and plot I really liked, but ultimately suffered from too many problems with writing to fully enjoy. The grit and darkness of the book felt over the top and uncompelling and the world felt underdeveloped. If you really like grimdark or mercenary stories than this might be worth checking out, but for the majority of readers I would recommend a pass on Snakewood.