Scourge of the Betrayer
Night Shade, 2012
Even with the publisher’s description I’m sure that I would have made the connection myself but when reading Jeff Salyards’ Scourge of the Betrayer the inevitable comparison is with Glen Cook’s Black Company series. The structure bears some similarity, a military fantasy narrated by a man chronicling deeds, but both remain distinct. Scourge of the Betrayer is told from the perspective of Arki, a young scribe hired to record the deeds of a band of Syldoon warriors lead by Captain Braylar Killcoin. The Syldoon are warriors that border on legendary and it is Arki’s intent to determine how much of that legend was true. Arki, untrained in the ways of battle or the hardships of the road, is thrown into a dangerous mission that will test his dedication to uncovering the truth of the Syldoon and his desire to make his own name.
Salyards’ tosses you straight into the fire with very little explanation about the characters and world. Reader’s are left only with the vague notion that Syldoon are famous for their warriors and are forced to learn more at the same pace as Arki. It is a bold, and somewhat clever, move on Salyards’ part placing the readers on the same page as the narrator. Of course it has the potential to alienate the impatient reader since aspects of Captain Killcoin and his mission are only revealed in drips and drabs as the novel progresses. Descriptions of the world and nations in Scourge of the Betrayer go only so far as to include only those aspects that directly impact the plot. Given that the novel is narrated entirely by Arki this makes sense and works quite well at keeping the attention focused on the actions of and personalities of the characters.
While our initial introduction to Captain Killcoin and his companions portrays them in a sort of stereotypical fashion as Arki, and by extension the reader, comes to know them better they each begin to resolve into more complete and engaging personalities. This is one of my favorite aspects as the slow burn revelation of character and personalities really makes the later violence that falls upon our characters all the more heart wrenching. Salyards’ places particular focus on two characters in particular: Captain Killcoin (who weilds the titular scourge) and the outcast tribeswoman Lloi. Captain Killcoin, who first appears as the badass of badasses, slowly resolves into a more distinct and trouble figure. As the truth behind the title of the novel becomes more apparent, the Betrayers in question are the Gods that have seemingly abandoned the world, Killcoin takes on a more tragic air. However it is Lloi who I really found myself gravitating towards. Like Killcoin there is tragedy in Lloi’s past as well and it is telling that her position amongst a group of hardened warriors, some of whom do not necessarily respect her, is an improvement over her past. The way her existence is entwined with that of Killcoin is touching without being sappy even more so when you realize that as much as Killcoin need’s Lloi’s help there is still a very profound loneliness to her existence.
Scourge of the Betrayer offers a slower burn than most gritty military fantasies. When the action does hit it is fast, furious and unapologetic. To his credit Salyards’ doesn’t linger on the violence and rather lets the grit come from its effect of his characters. This is also Salyards’ debut novel and the novel does not stumble and while the pace might not be blistering it marches forward at a steady gait that never wavers. While Salyards’ doesn’t go into the lengthy history of his world those instances where it does come up are welcome and interesting. The bits of history we do get not only flesh out the world these characters live in but lend greater depth and detail to who they are. While the novel falters a bit in its conclusion, the end just sort of happens, the journey to get there is engaging and evocative and I’ll definitely be back on board when Captain Killcoin and his men come back. If you are a fan of dark, military fantasy you can’t go wrong with Scourge of the Betrayer.