Along the Razor’s Edge (The War Eternal #1) by Rob J. Hayes – Book Review

Review originally posted over at: Booknest.eu
Release Date: March 30, 2020
Published by: Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
Pages: 281
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Provided by the author in return for an honest review.

What Rob J. Hayes has done in Along the Razor’s Edge cements his place as one of the masters of grimdark fantasy.

I’ve taken my time getting to the review of this book, the first of an ambitious new trilogy Rob has decided to release over the next few months of 2020, starting March 31, just a little over a month as of the time of writing of this review. There’s plenty I want to say, and I will begin with this: as soon as I was finished with Razor’s Edge, I was desperate for more. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like great praise to you but keep in mind, only a few fantasy authors in my adulthood have awoken in me the desire to dive into their fictional worlds without so much as a breath of something different in-between – Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Brian McClellan, Steven Erikson.

Eskara Helsene is a Sourcerer of great potential, capable of holding up to five Sourcery stones in her stomach at any one time, she is a deadly trump card for the Orean Empire and a fierce combatant against their Terrelan foe. Or she was, anyway, before the side she fought the war on lost. Now, Eskara is a captive, one of thousands of the foes of the victorious Terrelans stuck in The Pit, a hole in the ground in which the prisoners are forced into performing endless Sisyphean labour every day of their miserable existence. Digging rocks, dragging them out and then digging yet more rocks. “Maybe it was just punishment; never-ending, pointless toil down in the dark. The sure, unwavering knowledge that nothing we did or said meant a damned thing. A punishment worse than death. Irrelevance.” The Pit is made to break people, not just physically but psychologically shatter them as well.

But Eskara will not be broken. Despite betrayal by her closest friend and beatings at the hands of a sadistic foreman at the opening of Razor’s Edge, despite the lack of food and rest and even sunlight, this fifteen-year-old girl refuses to surrender. She draws strength from the daily cruelties perpetrated against her, turns it all into smouldering fury. All-consuming rage is perhaps one of the most sure-fire mechanisms of survival and it serves Eskara well but like the Source inside her belly, it too is poisonous the longer she carries it inside. Do not mistake this for flat characterization. Though Eskara is dominated by fury and pride, her emotions go further; it’s the inability to express them that speaks of a character deeply scarred and emotionally curbed from childhood. What she uses as a crutch is her power: “…I wouldn’t trade my magic for all the meals and sleep in the world. I love the power far too much.” Eskara defines herself through her Sourcery, even in the Pit.

The strongest element in Hayes’ work has to do with character voice; the narrator is none other than Eskara herself – but an older, world-weary Eskara, one for whom the Pit is in the far-off past, though it’s obvious through her narrative that it’s a gangrenous wound that this older Sourcerer has not wholly escaped from. Foreshadowing, done right, can add so much to a work of fiction. Rob does it right, as well as Gene Wolfe in the genre-defying Book of the New Sun. Though these are two very different stories, they share strands of DNA not in voice alone but also in the primal fear of deep, dark places far underneath the surface they both seize. They share, too, well-crafted prose, every word fitting into the greater whole like pieces of a puzzle. So often I come across self-published fantasy works whose occasional smattering of modern parlance comes across as staggering discrepancy, and indeed, I recall even the first of the author’s books I read, City of Kings had the occasional incongruity in this way; not so with Hayes’ latest.

Another strong element of this title is the magical system. A cool, imaginative twist on the schools of magic you might be familiar with, the magic in this world is internally consistent and what I’d call “hard” magic. It’s powered by Source stones the Sourcerer must swallow, each stone with a different magical affinity. There’s plenty more of it than that and suffice to say, I’m excited to see its further complexities reveal themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention the cast of characters. Though I don’t intend on calling each one out, I have to commend Rob for his handling of the dynamics between Eskara and her fellow Sourcerer, Josef. Few in the Pit are what you might call “nice people,” and Eskara is nowhere near as good at making friends as she is at making enemies, but a few allies are nonetheless in the cards for her and the intricacies of their relationships intertwined make for an additional layer of human drama.

The novel is an intelligent work about the costs of perseverance fuelled by the basest human emotions. As thrilling as this first chapter in Eskara’s tale is, it offers caution too. Though anger keeps her alive – that’s no great spoiler, I think, as the older Eskara’s narration is immediately evident – the urge to lash out at those around her costs our protagonist immeasurably much.  

Shall we speak of the cover art? Felix Ortiz continues to outdo himself and if you don’t believe me, come back over at booknest.eu tomorrow, because I have a special treat for you – Rob has given me the absolute pleasure of revealing the cover for Along the Razor’s Edge’s sequel, The Lessons Never Learned!

In the end, I am excited – excited to see the world outside the Pit, excited to see Rob follow-up on what is the best example of foreshadowing I’ve come across since Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, excited for more of Eskara beyond all else. This is my Fantasy Read of the Month; I am happy to give it a full score of 10/10. I consider this a grimdark masterpiece, and an early contender for my favourite opening of a series for the year.

Synopsis:

No one escapes the Pit. At just fifteen Eskara Helsene fought in the greatest war mankind has ever known. Fought and lost. There is only one place her enemies would send a Sourcerer as powerful as her, the Pit, a prison sunk so deep into the earth the sun is a distant memory. Now she finds herself stripped of her magic; a young girl surrounded by thieves, murderers, and worse. In order to survive she will need to find new allies, play the inmates against each other, and find a way out. Her enemies will soon find Eskara is not so easily broken.

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

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Once upon a time, I read Half a King by Joe Abercrombie and was quite fond of it.

Half a King was a wonderful entry into the unique brand of subversive storytelling Abercrombie is famed for. It was a thrill to go through but now that I’ve read four of the six First Law books (the First Law Trilogy and ‘Best Served Cold,’ which introduced me to one of my all-time favourite female protagonists)  I can safely say, the First Law is what  food is to the prisoners of a Siberian penal colony!

You’re impressed by my uncanny ability to make up weird and frighteningly specific similes, I know.

Just before I begin the review in earnest, allow me to say…I finally read it! I’ve had this trilogy for a shamefully long period of time, without ever touching it for reasons that elude me and defy reason! With this out of the way…

What’s the Blade Itself all about? Ask our old friend, Homer, and he’ll give you an excellent answer: ‘The blade itself incites to deeds of violence*.’ See? Even Homer read The First Law trilogy. It’s that good! It incites even the temporal laws of the universe to violate themselves!

The world of the First Law will, at first glance, seem no more or less alien than any other epic fantasy world you might’ve explored. A great and wise Magi is to be found, a bloodthirsty barbarian fights for his survival, a cruel Inquisitor tortures both the guilty and the innocent for his own advancement, and a young nobleman and soldier prepares for a test of skill, which can see him become champion of the Union.

Dig deeper, and you’ll discover few things are as they first appear — Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is a man deliciously cynical but to whom there is more than is readily obvious; Logen Ninefingers, a blood-thirsty barbarian by reputation wants nothing more than to leave that reputation behind; our young, dashing officer Lothar is as cowardly as he is pleasant to look at–and oh, how handsome he is. Even our wizard hides within layer upon layer, every one stranger than the one before it. The only character who doesn’t seem to go against my first impression of her was Ferro, the fugitive slave from Gurkhul, the Union’s Southern neighbour and favourite country to go to war with due to reasons way too complex and spoiler-y to explain here; and I quite understand a former slave wanting nothing more than to murder her former slavers.

Dozens of other characters, both likeable ones and absolute bastards are to be found within the pages of The First Law.  None lack in character, none come off as anything less than real human beings with their own motivations and goals, and those come off starkly in conflict with what our protagonists are attempting to accomplish. The conflicts can be very clear-cut, with impressive battle and chase scenes; other times, they’re much more discrete, happening during spectacularly written pieces of dialogue which may leave goosebumps all over your body.

Abercrombie’s battles deserve mention, both for the excellent description and the cost they exact upon the characters who take part in them. War is not without cost, regardless whether you come out on top and the author makes a wonderful job of illustrating what a toil war bears.

Possible problems you might have with The Blade Itself:

  • The plot moves slowly. I never once had an issue with that, because it didn’t feel like pointless build-up to me; exciting and interesting events happened throughout, but we did spend a lot of time in a single city, setting things up; totally worth it in my opinion, but some people are less patient and might not find it as enjoyable as I did, or at all.
  • You might not like the characters. But then again, that’s the risk with every book ever, so why am I drawing this out?!

The Blade Itself is a book about a few different things, and those work really, really well. It’s a character-driven story, a tale about a monarchy besieged on all sides by enemies just as all those enemies move to attack it; it’s a book that sets up one of the most subversive and genre-flipping stories I’ve read in recent memories; and it’s a treat of excellent worldbuilding that never once threatened to overwhelm or bore me.

Perhaps I was wrong to review it only after reading the entire trilogy and appreciating, in retrospect, just how well a number of mind-blowing events are set-up. If that is so — that’s my cross to bear, innit?

One last mention — the city of Adua, where a large portion of this book takes place, makes for a really awesome set piece. It’s majestic and beautiful, but deeply corrupt–three things I want in any city worth visiting! #visitAduanow

PS Yes, the cover above is from the audiobook version. I haven’t listened to it, so I can’t speak to the level of narration; the image was the most high-quality one I could find on the Interwebz.  Feel free to check the audiobook out, if that’s your thing, or if you spend three hours a day in a car, public transport or by train. Go trains!

Thank you for reading! I’ll be back soon with reviews of Before They Were Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings. If you enjoyed this review, please click that ‘Like’ button, and don’t be afraid to Follow me! Have you read the Blade Itself? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments below!  Go grimdark fantasy! Whooo!

 


*Quote in the Odyssey is from the beginning of book XIX , and is, depending on the translation, either For iron by itself can draw a man to use it’ or ‘Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin,’ both of which aren’t too far off from the quote presented above andat the beginning of The Blade Itself. It’s likely that Abercrombie mixed and blended the two translations, adding a bit of his own magic, which I’m all for.

 

 

 

Fantasy Quote of the Day 25/08/2017

This one is from the Black Company–the very first novel in the series, in fact. You can find reasons to read it here.

It’s a pretty lengthy quote; beware!

The legate said, “Welcome to the service of the Lady, physician.” His voice was distracting. IT did not fit expectations, ever. This time it was musical, lilting, the voice, of a younger woman putting something over on wiser heads.

The Lady? Where had I encountered that word used that way, emphasized as though it was the title of a goddess? A dark legend out of olden times . . .

A howl of outrage, pain, and despair filled the ship. Startled, I broke ranks and went to the lip of the air well.

The forvalaka was in a big iron cage at the foot of the mast. In the shadows it seemed to change subtly as it prowled, testing every bar. One moment it was an athletic woman of about thirty, but seconds later it had assumed the aspect of a black leopard on its hind legs, clawing the imprisoning iron. I recalled the legate saying he might have a use for the monster.

The legate, the terror called Soulcatcher in old tales, a devil worse than any dozen forvalaka, laughed madly. His crewmen cringed. A great joke, enlisting the Black Company in the service of evil. A great city taken and tittle villains suborned. A truly cosmic jest.

The Captain settled beside me. “Tell me, Croaker.”

So I told him about the Domination, and the Dominator and his Lady. Their rule had spanned an empire of evil unrivalled in Hell, I told him about the Ten Who Were Taken (of whom Soulcatchet was one), ten great wizards, near-demigods in their power, who had been overcome by the Dominator and compelled into his service. I told him about the White Rose, the lady general who had brought the Domination down, but whose power had been insufficient to destroy the Dominator, his Lady, and the Ten. She had interred the lot in a charm-bound barrow somewhere north of the sea.

 

Ten Things I would do if I were a Surgeon in a Grimdark Fantasy Setting, Part 01

  1. Bullets! Forty years I have watched as military arts evolved, changing the balance between  all those different peoples who move in and out of the Barrowlands, bringing with them an ever-more complex array of ranged weaponry. These…guns, as they are called, are fascinating contraptions; I have seen a squadron of ill-prepared mages ripped apart under a single round of fire; my hands have had to
  2. In that time, I have treated bullet wounds properly, watching meanwhile as dozens upon dozens of my ‘colleagues’ pour arcane boiling oil into men and women who would be better served if the bullets within their bodies were to be removed.
    I know very few men who’ve a liking for lead poisoning. But those charlatans sure enjoy the coin they receive from peddling the Alchemist Guild’s concoction.
  3. Duty of care goes beyond caring for one’s patients alone. It runs much deeper than that; we physicians, no matter the occupation, must seek to further our knowledge. To the betterment of medicine no price is too small to pay.
  4. A good reason to go after that mob of alchemists; to snoop around a little, anyhow. I’ve not the friends I used to, when I was younger. I am an old man now, my hair greying and receeding–I’ve grown fat, for Gods’ sakes.
  5. My hands’re still dexterous, and strong, however. When I grab one of the boy-apprentices from the Guild, and squeeze, the boy sings. The tales it tells…

And that’s it for today, I’m afraid. A bit shorter than usual, since I’m short on time! Today’s partial list was inspired by Ambroise Paré, the physician who, in 1536, changed the course of medicine by taking a bullet out of a bullet wound, instead of cauterizing it with the bullet still inside; all because he’d ran out of the substance. You can read more about him here.

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain, Volume 10 — Tamara

Diary Entry #0175

I find my Ex-Wife standing in the ruins of an ancient temple not far from the center of town. Mine Librarians have, by now, subjugated all local authorities, and have made their base unto the small library in town. ‘Tis a pitiful reliquary of knowledge but it shall feed their hunger for the arcane until my business is done.

I have cast self-writing spells on this here feather, and am stepping unto the once-hollow grounds of cursed Linah, goddess of old. I can hear the thunder that the harp stole from me all the way from the entrance, curse her grabby claws.

I step on a tile and — of course — an apparition of the three-headed pet dog I had appears and attempts to bite my head off. Ungrateful sap! I summon a blade of pure darkness, and cut through its soul essence, unable to help myself as gleeful laughter escapes mine lips.

She poisoned my puppy, and stole its remains, for this?!

One simply must respect her attention to detail; few put in such grand effort into their malicious intent towards me. Take the Council of Darkness — for all their armies, that yonder group of mine colleagues hath proven woefully lacking in imagination. Soon will I turn the blade on them, and cut their traitorous tongues, and serve them with spicy goodness and mushrooms.

Mushrooms add a depth to traitorous tongues that few other ingredients manage to!

Ah, this wife of mine — her gauntlet tires on me. But the thunder is ever nearer, and so must I venture further. Tis maze of tunnels, built by ancients–Bah! I will have none of it!

My armored fingers twitch with utter disregard to all things living, and all things rocky that might be encountered against the underground wall in front of me. It melts away, clearing the way towards mine succubus of an ex! I do not see her, not y–what’s this? My spell is boun–!

I awaken to the sensation of molten armor all over my magnificent vessel. ‘Tis not a pleasant one, to my mild surprise; at least I can now scratch an item off of my Agony List.

Metal reforms and strengthens under mine force of indomitable will, and I get up and stomp towards the deafening sounds of mine thunder. There will be hells to pay. Perchance she will be the one to pay them all in the stead of mine suit of armor.

There she is, now. My, is she a fright to beholden!

Her hair is pale white, with a purple strand or two, and her eyes — a bloodshot red that makes artists squeal with joy untold. Her nails could decapitate a man with such ease as to leave any observer awed and drenched in cold sweat. Her legs are travelling towards my–ARGH– “Woman, what did you do that for?!”

“It’s my way of thanking you for the chase you’ve given, husband of mine.” She smiles at me. The nerve! “I have long hungered for a game of cat and mouse, darling man, and you were all too accommodating. Did you enjoy your — welcoming pup?”

As she speaks, I attempt to flicker her off with two fingers. Would silence her well enough. Mine is a lightning fast move; the harpy dodges it, blast her winged hide.

“Mine thunder, woman.”

She lets out a roaring laugh, then turns unto a wolf, three, four times the size of mine dark lupine pets, and lunges at mine throat. Barely do I react in time, slapping her fanged face away.

One thing I have never missed in this woman — her dog breath.

She transforms once again, this time to a younger visage of her true form; her face is bloodied but she pays no heed to it.

“It is not here, husband, surely you have noticed so already?”

I give no answer; curse the gods, she is right! The sounds of mine thunder do no longer provide ambiance in the massive underground arena whence we have our ex-marital bout of violent exchanges…

“Return it, witch!” I spit at her, as the earth trembles in response to mine terrible wrath, dirt and sandstone raining down on us. “Or else I shall bury us both, and watch as you wiggle your way up, under the guise of a worm — it will suit you so, Tamara!”

She pouts at me — she dares! — and puts a chest upon that device that pumps blood unto her ancient body. “I didn’t wish your anger to cause it harm, darling, and so I put it somewhere safe; it just so happened that my body was the safest vessel. Can you blame me?”

“Most cer–”

“Your spell of doom and gloom did try to disintegrate me so…I wanted to avoid any further unpleasantness, and so I did as I thought best.”

“Take it out then, witch, and hand it over. Do so now, and I will allow thine wings to carry you unharmed from here.”

She takes a step forward, and bows, a bit too deeply. Mockery, perhaps?

“Kiss me, and it will be yours to command once more,” she says, her eyes glinting with…whatever it is that witches’ eyes glint with, when they are plotting to steal a kiss from me.

“Must I, really?”

“Is it the breath that worries you?”

“It’s–oh, never you mind, witch. Let us be done and over with this.”

She nods, and I remove my helm.

“I love what you’ve done with your hair, it’s really quite captivating.”

I ignore her, as her face draws nearer. Gods, and I thought the stench was bad before.

“If this is trickery, witch, I will roast you for it. No memory of old will stop my hand this time, and no ma–”

She silences me. The force of my magnificent, wondrous thunder roars unto her body, as I stretch mine consciousness unto her body–and the trap springs.

 

Day #0176

I awoke unto darkness. It shouldn’t have worried me, of course — since I have excellent darkvision — but it did. Mine attempts to summon light were met with great lack of success; mine magics did not respond unto mine desperate calls and pleas.

I finally managed to start a fire with a flint that I discovered after hours upon hours of search in the darkness. A leather bag was not left not far from me but in the darkness…it took a long time to discover.

Light gave way to definitive proof of what I feared most — mine former wife has somehow stolen mine glorious body, and left my mind unto hers. She is doubtless far, by now, already plotting on the best ways to dismantle my growing Empire.

Tamara will fail. I will hunt her down, take back the vessel that is due to me, and banish her unto realms of such endless horror that she could not ever dream of.

And I…I will make sure that none are left to defy me, once she is taken care of.

 

 

Ten Things an Inquisitor would do in a fantasy world filled with evil, vile, no-good things (#1 of the Crossleg’d Chronicles)

Be warned! The following Inqusitorial Scripture takes place in the world of The Unintentionally Helpful Villain and, quite possibly, of a few other entities I have written about, in this here blog.

  1. In a world filled with a host of monsters, demons and an entire Council of Darkness, Brezt Khleid, Inquisitor of the First Order, thrives. Why wouldn’t he? See that crystaline wolf-like spirit, laying on the ground, two expert cuts having even more expertly shattered the magics that held the foul intruder’s body together?
    Ay, ay! That’s his handiwork. Impressive, isn’t it, for a man such as he, crossleg’d and decrepit.
  2. Come now, use thy eyes to look upon him. Do you see that figure, far below, moving slowly, with the determination of a serpent, old and ancient, grasping towards ephemeral rays of sunlight… Down he goes, down the streets of old Feshemar, the city ever-lit by emerald flames, a gift–some say–by a goddess to a mortal lover.
    She had many such lovers, alas. As she grew bored with him, the gift turned to deadly trap, and even now his soul is used as fuel.
  3. Brezt Khleid has little time for legend, but he knows that one. Little does he doubt that, were he to ever find himself against this goddess, he would present upon her a just reward.
    The Inquisitor is not a godly man.
  4. That is not to say that he does not believe. See now as Khleid bursts into the merchant Olivan’s home, as he draws loaded crossbow and points it at shocked Olie’s face! There it is. The moment of truth.
    Shock runs through the face of this most voluminous merchant’s face; shock, then fury — and as metal bolt pierces skin, rends flesh, breaks ribs and shatters the stuff of life, one final moment of peaceful revelation. What is revealed, only a certain few could say, and –nay, don’t look at me with such ardent expectation! My lips are sealed!
    Instead, look upon the scene of this murder most foul.
  5. Brezt Khleid reloads his crossbow calmly, with the expertise of a man much too familiar with routine. He knows his work in the house is not yet done. Sounds from the house — sounds that make the hairs on Khleid’s neck stand on ends — become louder, as if attempting to force the Inquisitor to retreat.
    He has no such intent.
  6. The house resists every step Brezt takes. It is a foul place, in need of cleansing and the Inquisitor is the one to do it. He is the only one who can; Brezt Khleid has, after all, a divine mandate. A few flying trinkets and baubles won’t stop him, inconvenient though as they are.
  7. A door is all that stands between the Inquisitor and the source of evil that has made this dwelling its home. Khleid doesn’t know what awaits behind that door, but he is not a young man, prone to illusion. A merchant with Olivan’s reputation – that of a good and honest man – will only protect this corruption if he has a personal stake in it.
  8. So Brezt Khleid reasons as he breaks through the door, using his shoulder as most man would a battering ram. His sword flashes in one hand, illuminating soft light that parts away the darkness. Figures slide towards him with incredible, impossible speed. He tries to turn to his side, using his side as defense.
  9. Claws dig into Brezt Khleid’s flesh, leaving searing pain behind, rending his right arm useless. The hand-crossbow falls to the side, still loaded. None of this fazes Khleid. To allow distraction is to die. He thrusts his sword at the creature, as its claws are still running down the length of his arm. It — whatever it is — goes limp; as the Inquisitor pulls his sword, the body falls to the ground. He takes a deep breath trying to calm the fire running through his body, and allows himself a moment of reprieve.
  10. It is the face of a woman, far from old, but not young either. There is beauty to her, even as she lay dead; the Inquisitor has seen that many of those touched by evil are beautiful to behold. He does not trust beauty any longer; it is a sign of vile infestation.
    A pair of snarles forces him awake from his reverie. Two figures, child-sized, stand not twenty feet away from him. Watching. Their eyes are cauldrons of fire.
    Brezt Khleid raises his sword, a wan smile playing on his face.

And cut! How did you enjoy this story? Let me know if you’d like more!