When I found out that Jeff Salyards' Scourge of the Betrayer was being compared to Glen Cook's Black Company series, my curiosity was immediately piqued. Night Shade Books have really been pushing the envelope for the last couple of years, so I wanted to find out if this was going to be another novel/series which would have that distinctive vibe that can only be found in Night Shade Books titles these days.
Salyards' fantasy debut is interesting and different, yet that doesn't always work in its favor. The comparison with Glen Cook works only so far as the structure of the tale is concerned. Indeed, both the Black Company installements and Scourge of the Betrayer are military fantasy offerings narrated by the protagonist chronicling the deeds of their respective military outfits. But that is where the similarity ends.
Scourge of the Betrayer is a relatively short work. Weighing in at only 255 pages, as the first volume in a series, one would have thought that it would be a page-turning tale laying the groundwork and setting the stage for what would occur in the rest of the series. Unfortunately, Jeff Salyards plays his cards way too close to his chest, forcing readers to wade through the better part of this book in near-total mystery, unaware of what is going on and where the story is going.
Here's the blurb:
A gritty new fantasy saga begins . . .
Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies–or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon’s dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he’s about to find out for himself.
Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men’s enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he’s killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.
Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience!
A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire–and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man’s soul.
Interestingly enough, there is virtually no worldbuilding to speak of throughout the novel. Other than a few brief revelations regarding the Syldoon toward the end, Salyards introduces a number of what appears to be fascinating concepts and ideas, but he never follows through and elaborate on any of them. This could be construed as a major flaw, but I reckon it has more to do with the fact that the tale is told through the first person narrative of Arkamondos, a cowardly scribe who has seldom been out and about, and who seems to have little knowledge of the world around him. Innocent and a nerdy sort of dumbass, Arkamondos, as the POV character through whose eyes the entire tale unfolds, cannot offer any kind of perspective. Which results in a very bland brand of worldbuilding. And yet, as I mentioned, there are a few very interesting concepts such as the Deserters, the Godveil, the Memoridons, and the Syldoon themselves. But as the narrator knows close to nothing about each aspect, readers are basically left in the dark regarding each and every one of them.
First person narratives can be tricky things. Indeed, since there is only one POV protagonist through which every single facet of the story is channeled, that character can make or break the book. And it's with the characterization that any comparison with Glen Cook ends. The Black Company novels featured the narrative of the unforgettable Croaker. The man has been the company's doctor and annalist for years and is always part of the action. As an insider, Croaker's commentary regarding the dynamics between members of the Black Company and their deeds is one of the highlights of the series. On the other hand, Arkamondos doesn't have much going for him. He's an outsider and about as big a pussy as one can be. As you can imagine, as a cowardly scribe, he is not made welcome by the Syldoon warriors. Thankfully, Jeff Salyards refuses to take the path of least resistance, and Arkamondos remains true to himself and his convictions throughout the novel. Trouble is, readers might have some problems identifying with someone like that. I'm aware that it's all part of the premise to have such an innocent protagonist chronicle and narrate what is essentially a dark and violent tale of military fantasy. But in the end, I'm not entirely sure it always works well. Especially since Scourge of the Betrayer features a couple of very intriguing characters like Captain Braylor Killcoin, Lloi, and Hewspear. I feel that the story needs Arkamondos' POV to be what the author envisioned to be. Having said that, I'm persuaded that the book would have benefited from one or two more POVs, if only to give readers a different sense of perspective.
In terms of rhythm, I wouldn't say that Salyards' debut is a slow-moving novel. What made it appear slow was the fact that so very little information is disclosed that readers are forced to plow through the better part of the novel without understanding what is going on, what are the characters' motivations, and where exactly the story is going. Like poor Arkamondos, readers are forced to wade through, unaware of what is taking place, feeding on the tiny morsels of information we are occasionally provided with. There is a sudden and unexpected change of pace during the last hundred pages or so. After a very dark and brooding beginning, during which an oppressive mood was set, the finale features action-packed choreographed battle scenes à la R. A. Salvatore that felt a bit out of place.
Though it features a narrator that's not always the sharpest tool in the shed and though I feel that Jeff Salyards kept his cards too close to his chest throughout this book and didn't reveal nowhere near enough, I found Scourge of the Betrayer to be interesting and captivating enough for me to want to discover more about what happens next. Not for what made it into the novel, but for everything that the author left out. Here's to hoping that Salyards will be more forthcoming in the sequel.
To learn more about Jeff Salyards and his work, check out his official website.