‘Blood And Iron’ is an engrossing novel of swords and sorcery. It’s tightly focused and complete, without a sprawling cast and endless appendix of subplots. That’s not to say Jon Sprunk tells a simple tale, he’s just managed to avoid the sinkhole of over-telling that sucks so much epic fantasy into the abyss.
Horace, a shipwright drafted for the Great Crusade, washes up on the shore of the land his company was set to invade, the lone survivor of a shipwreck. He is nursed back to health by the villagers who found him, only be taken as a slave with a good portion of the village. On the long and arduous trek to the temple, where the slaves will be given as an offering (we’re not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing for the slaves), he meets the gladiator Jirom, who has been fighting for his life for many years. Both men are strangers in a strange land and they form a tentative friendship that deepens as the journey tests the limits of their endurance and humanity.
When a strange storm strikes the slave train, Horace recognises the green lightning and awful power. The same supernatural effects sunk his ship. This time, the storm stirs the latent sorcery within him. Unwittingly, he joins his captors in the fight to break the storm and succeeds. Again, there is the question of whether this is a good or bad thing. While he certainly saved many, many lives, he has also exposed himself. He is a slave and a savage from another land, yet he is capable of wielding power bestowed upon the highest caste of Akeshians.
The journey is redirected to the queen’s court, where Horace becomes a house slave and Jirom is sent to a training camp. Again, both men face challenges. Jirom, the more physical as he throws his strength against a system designed to break slaves down and turn them against one another only to send them out as cannon fodder. Horace navigates the twistier course of power and politics as his sorcery is discovered and trained. The court sees him as a curiosity and a threat.
The loyalty and honour of both men continues to be tested as they are drawn into different facets of the rebellion set to undermine the already unstable rule of Queen Byleth. While the customs of the Akeshians range from inscrutable to cruel, Horace can see the queen truly cares for her people. Jirom is asked to choose between his friendship and a cause, time and again. Add in an evil cult and the true source of the supernatural storms and you have fast-paced and absorbing action interspersed with just the right amount of misdirection that all involved must hedge their bets before choosing a side.
Jon Sprunk’s world is familiar enough to be relatable, but different enough to feel somewhat original. The balance between might and magic is well done. The magic has definite limits and a cost, and neither Horace nor Jirom emerge from the climax unscathed. I would have liked a little more from Jirom’s point of view. I found his character fascinating and hope that as ‘The Book Of The Black Earth’ continues, we learn more of his history. I especially liked the fact he prefers men. More diversity in fantasy fiction is always a good thing! Up to this point I haven’t mentioned Alyra. She is a house slave at the palace who holds a fairly pivotal role in the plot and perhaps Horace’s future. Horace is an engaging hero as an everyman who discovers a hidden talent.
My favourite aspect outside of the storytelling, though, is the length of this novel and the fact it tells a complete story while setting the stage for further acts. At just over four hundred pages, ‘Blood And Iron’ doesn’t take too long to read. I managed it in two days and I’m really looking forward to the next book, ‘Storm And Steel’, which released June 2, 2015. Review forthcoming.
(pub: Pyr/Prometheus, March 2014. 428 page enlarged paperback and ebook. Paperbook price: $18.00 (US), £12.23 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-893-5. Ebook price: $ 9.59 (US). ASIN: B00F8EYVJE)