Jeff Saylards Bloodsounder’s Arc comes to a close in Chains of the Heretic an entertaining and exciting final entry in series that hearkens back to Sword and Sorcery stories of yesterday. The action in Chains of the Heretics picks up mere moments after the previous book so if you haven’t read any novels in this series watch out for spoilers. Betrayed and on the run Captain Killcoin, Arki, and the soldiers of Jackal Tower must resort to desperate measures in order to make a rendezvous with emperor-in-exile Thumaar. Unfortunately, with the Emperor Cynead’s forces hot on their heels getting away alive isn’t going to be easy. Dire straits lead to dangerous decisions and Captain Killcoin and his Syldoon soldiers have to face a variety of threats, both expected and unexpected, over the course of their journey.
Chains of the Heretic hammers home the role that memory and the past plays in the series. Memory has been an important conceit throughout this series through the presence of the flail Bloodsounder (which burdens its wielder with the memories of those it slays) and a variety of memory witches (Lloi in Scourge of the Betrayer and the Memoridons moving forward from there). The series’ point-of-view character Arki is a custodian of the past. He is a trained scholar hired not only to dig through ancient documents (i.e. the past) for information on Bloodsounder and memory witches but also to document the actions of Captain Killcoin and his company (i.e. record history). In contrast to the burden memory places on our heroes, particularly Captain Killcoin, there has been startlingly little revealed about the world’s past or the motivations that have moved Captain Killcoin to action. There is a certain amount of impenetrability to the past throughout the series; history is a massive shadowy weight that presses the characters forward without ever truly revealing itself.
Influenced by Arki’s findings certain actions taken by Captain Killcoin see the company taking a big leap of faith into uncharted territory. While those actions save the company from pursuit they also reveal the dangers of an unknown past; particularly how time can warp the meaning of events in strange sometimes dangerous ways. Here they mystery of the past throws a dark shadow over the present. The dangers of the past are hammered home as the company finally comes face to face with the deposed Emperor Thumaar. As Captain Killcoin is told just prior to meeting him “the years…have not been generous.” It’s a wonderful twist that I don’t want to completely spoil but one not wholly unsurprising when you lean heavily on the memory of a person rather than the person themselves.
Arki’s growth over the series is fully realized in Chains of the Heretic. An outsider at the start of the series he has slowly gained the acceptance of the Syldoon even as his original naiveté has slowly dwindled away. While he never seems to evince the hardened practicality (or outright cynicism) of the Syldoon he seems to comes to terms with it in a believable manner. Other characters shine throughout the series and particularly in Chains of the Heretic. The addition of the monstrously tall Azmorgan plays counterpoint to the wracked Mulldoos and their constant verbal sparring is always entertaining while Vendurro’s folkish wisdom and love of eggs continues to provide both insight and levity. Captain Killcoin, gruff and jaded, has continuously shown hidden depths below the bedrock of loyalty to his Tower a characterization which is continued here. Despite the animosity between the Captain and his sister their scenes together are typically enjoyable; Soffjian’s wry humor is another welcome addition despite her tendency to obfuscate her own goals.
If you’ve skipped out on reading any of this series you are seriously missing out. The novels in Bloodsounder’s Arc are typically lumped into the category of grimdark fantasy. I think the notion of grimdark is fairly reductive in nature and in Salyard’s work I’ve found that his attention to detail when building both characters and the world they live in a trait that far eclipses any amount of grit and violence (of which there is no small amount). Perhaps more than any other novels in the series Chains of the Heretic underscores some of the nobler aspects of its characters and somehow manages to do so while still staying true to those same characters’ hardcore, badassed natures. It’s an interesting, near contradictory aspect of Salyards’ work that really elevates the story to another level. These were characters that I actually cared about and when the last page finally rolled around I was both satisfied with their growth over three novels and disappointed to see them go. Salyards is an author to watch and I can’t wait to see what he does next.