Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empire Book 1)
Fantasy / Sci Fi Book Review
This is the first time I’ve read anything by Sam Sykes. The guy can write. After doing a little research on him, I was interested to learn that he is the son of the talented Diana Gabaldon who wrote the Outlander series.
In this first book of his Grave of Empires series, we are introduced to Sal the Cacophony. Sal is a gritty Vagrant with a foul mouth and a list of people that betrayed her. Vagrants are Imperial mages that have spilt from the Imperium for one reason or another to make it on their own which normally means pursuing unsavory ways of making a living through bounty hunting or crime. Sykes’ dark writing brought Joe Abercrombie to mind as this is not a young adult story with black and white outcomes. He puts his characters through the ringer, forcing difficult choices. The choices of each character are sometimes painful to read and the results of those choices are rarely what you’d expect.
That’s a positive. This novel has aspects of a mystery who done it, mixed with dark fantasy in a completely unique world that neatly blends magic and technology. That’s not easy to do while keeping the world believable but the author walks this fine line incredibly well.
At its heart, Seven Blades in Black is a story of revenge. It’s no Count of Monte Cristo, but it belongs in the same bookcase, maybe living on a slightly lower shelf like an emo, second cousin.
Our main character, Sal, plots her revenge on all who betrayed her with the help of her trusted magical gun, the Cacophony. It’s told from the first person as Sal sits in a prison cell as she awaits her own execution. It only gets darker from there. As she knocks names from her list I was most impressed with the originality both of the names and of the creatures she has to fight along the way. The author didn’t fall back on overused D&D tropes to fill his world. He instead invented everything from terrifying lake monsters called kelpbrides to the far more terrifying Scrath, who was meant to bring peace and order to the cosmos. The names on Sal’s list were even cooler. She tackles foes like Vraki the Gate and Zanze the Beast, in a winking nod to magical mobsters who would have been at home slurping linguini with Pesci and Liotta.
Each of the characters has multiple dimensions. Sal herself is a wreck of a person driven by her need for revenge over all else, sacrificing friendships and lovers in her quest to get what she needs. We get a steady running inner monologue of Sal’s thoughts which are refreshingly self-aware of exactly how screwed up she is. Throughout the novel, you learn why, but as she makes poor choice after poor choice it’s sometimes hard to root for her. Yet, it feels like that’s the point. This is not YA fantasy, this is something darker. My only complaint about the characters is that Sal’s companions are far less interesting than her opponents. It makes sense for a revenge fantasy but I found myself caring very little for the fate of her companions.
The pacing of the novel keeps you on your toes but it did feel a bit too long. It felt like some of the sequences on the road could have been cut without making too much of a difference to the overall tone or story.
The only thing that didn’t work for me was the amount of swearing in the book. I’m all for swearing in books, especially in fantasy. For decades, it seemed taboo to have a fantasy character say a bad word, which seems ridiculous considering all of the crap they have to wade through on a daily basis. I also understand where it comes from, Sal is a deeply broken creature and constant swearing is a character building tool. I find it funny to write this as, in real life, I often struggle to watch my own mouth, lest you think I’m coming across as puritanical.
That said, I believe cursing can be used to tremendous effect when injected at the right time. That’s not the case here. Sykes’ gratuitous use of the word fuck often washes out the beauty of his prose. He’s a great writer with a hell of a gift for metaphor, but I often felt like Sal ping-ponged between an insightful Bukowski and an annoying frat boy. That was slightly disappointing because she seemed smarter than that.
It’s still definitely worth the read. It’s such a different world than any other fantasy you’ll pick up. That alone is good reason to buy it.