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Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsBefore they imploded under their own dismal mismanagement, Night Shade Books was diligent in ushering first-time novelists into the SFF publishing world. One of their brighter discoveries was Jeff Salyards, a guy who does as much or more in 255 taut pages of Scourge of the Betrayer than a lot of fantasy veterans manage in 500. I find myself in the frankly bizarre position of saying that a novel might have been even better had it been longer, which is precisely the opposite of the problem most fantasies have. But Salyards paces himself, knowing both his ambitions and limitations, and doesn’t overextend himself in his maiden effort. This is more laudable than you know. Mainstream fantasy publishers, with their willingness to allow newbies to plunge into phonebook-sized tomes, sometimes make about as much sense to me as a movie executive willing to put a fresh-faced kid straight from YouTube at the helm of Lawrence of Arabia.

Salyards’ story is epic in scope, but intimate in focus. Arkamondos — Arki for short — is a callow young scribe whose new patron is Braylar Killcoin, a captain of the Syldoon Empire. (A shame, that, because he’s got the perfect name for a mercenary.) Braylar and a small band of soldiers are on a mission into the neighboring Anjurian Kingdom. Their exact intentions are cloaked in total secrecy. Arki has been hired to chronicle everything that goes on, in detail. It’s therefore a bit frustrating for him, being kept in the dark about so much, and he needles his employer with nonstop questions.

Consider the character of Braylar. He inspires loyalty, and exudes a sort of charm, though he’s never especially kind or compassionate, even towards his own people. It’s probably much to do with the fact that when it comes time to lead, he leads from the front. He has a quick wit, and an equally quick temper, and yet the two traits seem somehow harmonious in him, rather than indicating you’re dealing with someone terrifyingly bipolar. The cliché would have been for him to become a father or mentor figure to Arki. This decidedly does not develop, and yet somehow there’s a bond there, if one you can’t quite describe in words.

Braylar is a hard man, as I suspect you’d have to be if your military service required you to tattoo a noose around your own neck. He is bound to a magical flail that torments him with the memories of its victims. Of course, freeing himself from this curse is not as simple a matter as throwing the flail away. He’d obviously have done so by now. To rid him of his post-battle fugue, he needs the psychical ministrations of Lloi, a woman of a race called the Grass Dogs. If that’s a pejorative, she doesn’t seem to mind. Braylar rescued her from whoredom, though not out of compassion, especially, and the two of them need one another, though there’s little of what might traditionally be called affection there. 

I already mentioned one cliché that Salyards handily skirts, and here is another: This is very much Arki's coming-of-age narrative, but it does not read like one. Arki is not exactly an idealistic youth at the outset. (Though he does intervene to save the life of a man Braylar means to kill, and, perhaps as a lesson in the folly of misplaced idealism, Braylar indulges him in this.) Arki’s motivations were fame, fortune, and avoidance of drudgework. Confronted with the real world of killing, treachery and death, he grows into a pragmatist more than anything else. His biggest lesson is that you aren’t owed respect, and often won’t get it even when it’s legitimately earned.

Am I making the book sound like a big old heavy downer? Because it is anything but. Chalk that up as another of Salyards’ gifts: like Joe Abercrombie, he can construct a compelling, fast-paced story with this sort of cast and make you sympathetic to their failings and foibles. Arki’s first-person narration never cloys, and always sounds like the real thoughts of a young man learning lessons he’s smart enough to know he needs. Scourge of the Betrayer is the sort of confident debut the genre needs to see much, much more of. If only there were much, much more of it. While it is not, on its own, enough to be called great fantasy, it most definitely promises potential greatness down the road from Jeff Salyards.

Followed by Veil of the Deserters.