The sequel to 2012’s Scourge of the Betrayer opens the world up quite a bit. Jeff Salyard’s expands upon the Syldoon and their culture giving readers a more in depth look at the culture and society that produced Captain Killcoin and his brothers. Picking up bare moments after the first novel Veil of the Deserter’s see’s historian/narrator Arki and his Syldoon employers holed up in an inn nursing over Captain Killcoin who still suffers under the grievous effects of his flail, Bloodsounder. With the loss of Lloi in the previous novel the Syldoon are desperately searching for a new witch to help the Captain deal with stolen memories that Bloodsounder forces upon its wielder. Unfortunately for the band of soldiers they are instead found by a pair of Syldoon memory witches, one of which is Captain Killcoin’s sister Soffjian. While part of the Syldoon power structure the members of Captain Killcoin’s company view the memory witches with distrust a fact compounded by the obvious bad blood between Captain Killcoin and his sister.
While I enjoyed the Scourge of the Betrayer, Salyards focused on action over world building which left the novel feeling a little bit incomplete. Veil of the Deserters actually manages to up the ante on the action, moving at a furious pace, while somehow managing to provide a depth and detail to Salyard’s world that was not present in the first book. Soffjian’s arrival allows for Salyards to explore Captain Killcoin’s past, the nature of the Syldoon Empire, and as the company begins making its way back home the nature of Syldoon society at large. The revelation about what Captain Killcoin was sent to do during his mission makes way for the exploration of the more distant history of the world and the nature of Bloodsounder itself. Hell, Salyard’s even gives readers a description of how Captain Killcoin and his men came to acquire Bloodsounder. All of this backstory and world building is accomplished in lockstep with furious and dangerous action as the Slydoon make their way home while avoiding enemies made in Scourge of the Betrayer, towards a fate and confrontation full of import and danger.
In addition to providing some thrilling action set pieces such as unleashing a velociraptor like bird to serve as distraction to cover the company’s escape; slaughtering an entire guardpost, to capturing an important religious figure Veil of Deserters features some standout dialogue. Particularly when it comes to Captain Killcoin, Hewspear, Vendurro, and Mulldoos Salyards imbues their dialogue with sense of humor combined with an almost erudite verbosity that is enjoyable to read even if it somewhat surprising when coming out of the mouths of soldiers. While the soldiers don’t exactly sound like soldiers the idea that the novel is being narrated by an educated man, Arki, lends credence to the notion that what we are reading has been filtered through the experiences of someone more educated. The novel is fixed from Arki’s point of view and that fact definitely colors everything the reader experiences.
Veil of Deserters is a sizable improvement on a novel whose were only minimal to start with. Salyards has improved his craft in the two years between Scourge of the Betrayer and Veil of the Deserters and while the novel still shows its “grimdark” roots it evinces a more nuanced approach and offers a more robust playground for characters and readers alike. Salyards still dances around information about the titular Deserters (the gods who abandoned the world) hinting at a time when magic was less subtle than it currently is. The title does feel like a bit of a trick, the Veil mentioned in the title is an actually place that isn’t actually visited in the novel, though I feel like the next novel might delve more deeply into the Deserter Gods. I for one hope we don’t have to wait another two years for the next novel as more than anything else Veil of the Deserters has left me hungry for more.