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New Releases: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Scourge of the BetrayerMeanwhile, Scourge of the Betrayer (2012) - Jeff Salyards' debut novel, now available from Night Shade. It is a little cruel to review a book purely by contrasting it with another book (except with SL Grey, because that was between two of Grey's own books), but please bear with me. Scourge of the Betrayer is absolutely everything that Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear should have been. 

The books share a few similarities (and, in fairness, these appear in other fantasy novels as well). A scribe winds up assigned to record the exploits of a walking legend. The legend is revealed to be a person of great moral ambiguity: someone that does bad things for good reasons, good things for bad reasons, etc. etc. Vast, complex, plots are slowly revealed, with our legend somehow at their heart...

In Wise Man, this is realised as the all-singing, all-dancing Kvothe show - Kvothe topples empires, shags goddesses, invents music and redefines magic. Even when he's losing, it is all about him: no one has ever suffered like Kvothe has suffered. Kvothe's scribe isn't a part of the story - hell, he doesn't even get a name: The Chronicler exists solely to capture the glories of Kvothe.

In Mr. Rothfuss' defense (not a phrase I bandy about lightly), I think The Name of the Wind worked. The Chronicler was still a sock puppet, but Kvothe's story contained conflict - a coming of age story for a high fantasy Kal-El, plus enough of a plot ("Mean Girls" with magic) to keep things moving. Wise Man has neither progression nor plot. The Chronicler serves as a silent witness to an endless series of self-serving anecdotes, mortared together with Hallmarkian philosophy.

By contrast, Scourge of the Betrayer gets the balance right. Mr. Salyards builds up the relationship between the scribe, Arkamondos, and the legend, Braylar Killcoin: the hero and the sidekick.

Part of this is a matter of tense. Kvothe is recounting adventures from his youth. It is his past and his narration. Scourge is ongoing - Arkamondos is scrawling down things as they occur; he's a part of the story. In fact, the primary conflict in Scourge isn't about Braylar vs the (vaguely-defined) enemy or Braylar vs his (supposed) allies or even Braylar vs Arkamondos (they do squabble quite a bit). It is Arkamondos vs himself. Braylar is the captivating, mysterious, tragic hero. But Arkamondos, the poor cowardly scribe of uncertain ancestry and debilitating insecurity - his struggles steal the show. 

As he follows in Braylar's footsteps, Arkamondos is increasingly given opportunities to act, and not just remain in the audience. Against his better judgement (or perhaps his bad nature), Arkamondos commits the ultimate failure of the observer: he becomes involved. 

And what an involvement it is. Mr. Salyards' book has a series of terrific set-piece combats, each captured perfectly from Arkamondos' terrified, liminal perspective. But it isn't all just fighting. Scourge is a loose collection of scenarios, vaguely connected by some sort of mysterious, Imperial-level McGuffin. Braylar and his men in the midst of some sort of vast scheme. As Arkamondos becomes part of the group, he begins to piece it all together. His travels take him to taverns packed with thuggish brawlers, across dangerous, isolated plains and even behind the stage of a lavish theatre. At each point, Arkamondos learns more about the Captain and the truth behind his notoriety.

Mr. Salyards' commitment to Arkamondos' perspective comes not without its pitfalls. As the protagonist is kept in the dark, so is the reader. The McGuffin is unveiled (and as it comes a bit out of left-field, it is a slight disappointment), but the ultimate aim of Captain Braylar is still a shadowy thing. There's certainly a sense of progression throughout Scourge, but it is an internal thing, and not a fully-satisfied plot arc. 

Still, the result is a genuinely terrific fantasy debut. There's a complex world with its own set of rules and prejudices, a big shadowy epic that's building in the background and, most of all, a story built around a unique perspective. The legendary/notorious/torn hero has been done (a lot), but not from this point of view. Arkamondos is in Braylar's wake, watching the capital-h-Hero change the world. But he's also moving in parallel: shouldering his own burdens and making his own, minute decisions. Arkamondos may not save the world, but thanks to Mr. Salyards' empathetic storytelling, his quest is just as important.

[But, good lord - that cover! I read this as an eBook and expected the book-book to be something - I don't know - Abercrombian. The actual cover is very much not my thing.]