Thursday, 19 June 2014

‘Blood and Iron’ – Jon Sprunk (Pyr)

I had good fun reading ‘Shadow’s Son’ (despite a couple of issues with the book) but somehow never found the time to read the other two books in the series. It’s funny how that can happen isn’t it? So many books to read but so little time to make a serious dent in the reading pile, that’s half the fun of it sometimes but ‘book casualties’ are inevitable. Maybe I’ll catch up one day.
In the meantime, when I heard that Sprunk was writing another series I resolved to be in at the beginning, especially when I heard it was going to be a more sprawling epic affair. Epic fantasy is where my genre roots are and it’s always good to go back to your roots, or is it? That depends on the book you’re reading and ‘Blood and Iron’ didn’t quite do it for me.

It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn't even begin to understand.

Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn't last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen's court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire's caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.

I finished ‘Blood and Iron’ yesterday but couldn’t find it in myself to write about the book as it left me feeling kind of, well… cold. The book does its job well enough, serving up a tale that has all the ingredients for an epic fantasy read; warfare and politicking with far reaching consequences and a hero who is trying to work out where he fits in the scheme of things. It didn’t help that the hero’s name is Horace as that got me thinking of this,

Absolutely nothing to do with the book but I figured if it's in my head then I'd share it around a little bit. Anyway… I can’t really blame the book for this (it’s not the books fault that I played a lot of computer games back in the eighties) but where the book did fall down for me is that none of what happened felt like it had any heart in it. Part of this I think is down to Horace feeling so out of place, in this foreign land, that the reader can’t really tell what matters and what doesn’t (except when it is trying to kill Horace, then it’s pretty clear). Sprunk perhaps does too much of a good job with the ‘whole stranger in a strange land’ thing… I’m hoping that things become a little more clear in future books (which I will read, more on that in a bit).
There’s also the fact that Horace buries past traumas too deeply for the reader to truly engage with him (although that’s entirely understandable when you find out why) but all the other characters, that matter, seem to either fall for him or quickly become friends. Dammit, what can they see in Horace that I can’t? If I was a woman, would I fall for Horace that quickly? Again, I’m hoping for a little more character development in the next instalment.

And that’s the thing, I will be reading the next book; no question about it. The magic system that Horace comes into is a little too familiar for my liking but Sprunk more than makes up this when depicting the mayhem caused by magical battle (and there’s a lot of this). What really made the book for me though was Jirom, a gay gladiator/slave/dog soldier who interacts a lot more with his surroundings in one chapter than Horace does over the course of the book. Jirom is a much more open character as well and I’m looking forward to journeying with him again when the next book arrives.

Not an inspiring opening to a series then but Sprunk gets the job done, doing enough for me to want to give the next book a go and and see this world (hopefully) open up a lot more.

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