A little while ago I was contacted by the relatively new author, Jeff Salyards. He has seen some of the reviews I had done, including my post about The Black Company, and wanted to know if I was interested in reading his debut trilogy, the Bloodsounder’s Arc. Salyards described it as a modern Black Company, and I am always looking for new authors to review. He generously sent me some copies in exchange for my unbiased review. Recently, I have finally had a chance to read his books and the time has come to write the aforementioned review. When an author goes out of his way to send you copies of his books at great personal cost, it motivates you to want to focus on the good and ignore the bad in an effort to repay them. However, I want to be as unbiased as possible so I swore I would be completely honest, even if the books were terrible. Luckily for me, that was not an issue as the books are great…mostly.
Before we get into the pros and cons of the individual books, let’s talk about the plot. The Bloodsounder’s Arc does indeed follow in the footsteps of The Black Company, as it follows the story of a young archivist, Arkamundos or Arki, who is hired by a foreign mercenary company to chronicle their journey. The book sticks with the archivist’s singular POV and there is some emphasis on the unreliable narrator, just as in The Black Company, where you only know what the archivist knows (which is almost nothing). The three books chronicle a single journey and slowly expands the scope and complexity of the world as the archivist learns more about what’s going on. While this is very much in line with The Black Company, that is where the similarities end and the Bloodsounder’s Arc starts to differentiate itself. Instead of a commentary on war, the books focus on the personal growth and evolution of Arki, as well as a whole lot of well done political intrigue, as the mercenary company fights to claim their empire’s throne.
Book one, Scourge of the Betrayer, is by far the shortest book and focuses on the introduction of the cast, the building of the world, and the opening moves in a long political chess match. Unfortunately, book one is where most of my problems with the series as a whole occurred. The book’s prose was occasionally redundant or awkward, making scenes less impactful. There were plot points that, while completely explained in later books, were confusing and unclear when seen alone in book one. In addition, there were a few scenes that were overly graphic and were a little much for me to read. Finally, while the book used many of The Black Company’s’ best qualities, it also took its worst; the terrible formatting on the first novel. It is not enjoyable to read a multi hundred page book that only has three chapters. I don’t like having to awkwardly break in the middle of a scene because I have something I need to do.
Despite all my complaints, I actually enjoyed Scourge of the Betrayer quite a bit. The characters were memorable and fun, but fairly shallow. The political intrigue was masterfully done in the first book, and only got better. Salyards does an excellent job of creating an oppressive and disheartening atmosphere as these soldiers stumble from one disaster to another, and I ended up really enjoying the world and plot. Also, most of my initial problems with The Scourge of the Betrayer were honest problems that are very common with debut books. Knowing this, I dove straight into book two, Veil of the Deserters, to see if Salyards improved his writing.
And he did, a lot. Salyards addressed almost every single issue I had with book one and improved his overall writing quality noticeably with Veil of the Deserters. Book two sees the cast increase in size, and adds a lot more depth to each character including some strong female leads that I was a huge fan of. The prose reads much more clearly, though is still what I would consider the weakest aspect of the book, and there are no confusing plot points that feel they are missing an explanation. While The Scourge of the Betrayer serves as an introduction, Veil of the Deserters feels much more fleshed out and complete. Salyards demonstrates an impressive ability to provide you with just enough information so that you don’t feel in the dark, but are always demanding more. The twists/reveals get more exciting, a magical system is introduced that is original and fascinating, there is very noticeable character growth, and my opinion quickly went from “I am reasonably curious as to what happens next” to “where the hell did I put book three”.
Speaking of book three, Chains of the Heretic is even better. Coming out of book two I was amazed at Salyards’s improvement in writing quality, but thought he still had some room to grow. In Chains of the Heretic, Salyards continues to show that he is continually improving and evolving. The prose of book three is clean and beautiful, not wasting time nor space like it did on occasion in previous novels. The plot continues to escalate in the final novel, nicely bringing the story to a crisis that combines all previous plot points in the story. The ending is well executed and extremely satisfying, while also leaving a large space for Salyards to write more novels in the world if he wanted to. I have seen other reviewers talk about how Chains of the Heretic was the grittiest or edgiest of the trilogy, but I actually don’t agree with that assessment. My favorite aspect of Chains of the Heretic is that I think Salyards achieves incredible humanization of his characters, much more so than his previous novels, and while their stories are dark and tragic they still feel real and relatable. In previous novels, I feel that there were instances of events being over the top, but book three finds the perfect middle ground between tragedy and believability.
The Bloodsounder’s Arc was honestly a lot better than I expected, and did a beautiful job both honoring the style of The Black Company and also creating something completely original. Salyards has shown that he learns from past mistakes and improves on his strengths with each novel, and has identified himself as a rising talent in fantasy. I will be on the look out for his next novels, and if you haven’t gotten the chance to read the Bloodsounder’s Arc, it is worth adding to your to-do list.
Scourge of the Betrayer – 6.5/10
Veil of the Deserters – 8.0/10
Chains of the Heretic – 8.5/10