Hardcover, 524 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by Night Shade Books
Warning: Review to contain minor spoilers.
E-ARC Provided by author and publisher in return for review
In 2014, I called Jeff’s Veil of the Deserters one of my top 5 books, schmoozing with fantasy genre juggernauts such as Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson. The debut in the series, Scourge of the Betrayer, captivated me – it was short and to the point, yet incredibly interesting. It left me wanting a lot more, and Veil delivered that to me. The incredible world that Salyards had created opened up before my eyes, introducing me to so much more about the Syldoon culture, their capital city, their politics, and the members of the party that I’d gotten to know in Scourge.
The epic was wrapped up in the forthcoming Chains of the Heretic, Jeff’s largest and most detailed book to date. Each consecutive book in this series has gotten better, longer, more vivid, more gut-wrenching. After the strong showing in Veil, I had huge expectations for this novel, and it delivered in every way possible.
Veil of the Deserters left our group of soldiers on the run from their capital city, Sunwrack, after narrowly escaping with their lives – minus about a quarter of their men. They fled, with the unlikely help of Captain Braylar Killcoin’s memory-witch sister, Soffijan, in search of the deposed emperor, Thumarr, with the intention of assisting him in retaking the throne. This is easier said than done for them, as they are harried by the new emperor’s troops, and find themselves stuck between their enemy, and the impenetrable wall of the godveil – all that separates their land from the land of the Deserters, the gods who abandoned their world centuries before.
When their feet were put to the fire, our first-person narrator of the series, the scribe Arki, discovered in some ancient texts that he was translating that they perhaps had a way to penetrate the Veil. After taking losses to hold off the enemies, they were able to pass the Veil, only to find themselves met by the Deserters themselves, finding that they were more terrifying than even previously thought, but also, shockingly, mortal. They also find quickly just how powerful that the Deserters are, and are forced to use all of their cunning and resources to escape their clutches.
Upon locating deposed emperor Thumaar, the party is surprised at some changes to his character, as well as his choice of allies; however, they stick to their loyalty to him, and vow to continue helping his plot to overthrow the evil Cynead, who is holding the throne of the Syldoonian empire. Eventually, this plan goes awry in rather spectacular fashion…
There are so, so many things that this series has done right. Very rarely have I found another trilogy or series where the story and suspense build and build, at just the right speed the majority of the time, every step of the process seeming to come exactly where it needs to. Scourge laid the groundwork, introduced the characters, and left us wondering what COULD be going on. Veil blew all of that up, exposed this enthralling world to us, left readers in shock, in tears at times, or fuming with rage at others. And there to sweep up the fruits of that is Chains, bringing the story home.
Some of the biggest strengths of Jeff’s writing, as well as the novels, are his characters, and more specifically, their interpersonal dialogues and personalities. I often judge novels very harshly if their characters seem homogeneous, similar, as if cut from a mold. Every. Single. Character. in the Bloodsounder’s Arc has their own distinct personality, speech style, mannerisms, behaviors. For large chunks of the novel, I feel as though I could identify almost any of the characters simply by their dialogue or actions, without any noting of who was speaking. That’s brilliance, as far as I’m concerned – to have each character be that distinct, without overdoing it and having them say certain lines too many times, or have repetitive mannerisms (looking at you, Nynaive in WoT). There’s ample usage of certain phrases, actions, etc that make the characters distinct, but it never feels like too much, never feels like anything is used in excess.
Salyards routinely creates distinct and vivid imagery, while using an economy of words. While Chains is by far his longest book yet, clocking in at over 500 hardcover pages, it is not filled with fluff or filler. All of those pages are used for purpose, for events that matter, for character interactions that feel necessary and needed, for descriptions that are succinct, but visceral. Conversations portray information, history, background, forthcoming events; all seamless, always feeling natural. Early in the series, I commented that there was some infodumping-type conversations occurring at times, but these are done away with by the third book, and Salyards seamlessly integrates these into casual conversation, finds a way to get across information without being clunky or awkward. Everything, at this point, is just so polished.
There are a plethora of traumatic happenings in Chains, all of which are handled very well. However, the reactions to these tragedies might be the strongest of any book I’ve read in recent memory. The somber response of a group of ultramasculine, hardened soldiers to a comrade’s death, each grieving quietly in their own way, in a group that generally abhors weakness. The internal struggles of our narrator Arki, as he struggles to adapt to the Syldoon lifestyle as they slowly accept him into their fold, as he watches friends fall, witnesses some of the most terrifying and horrific events, and tries to process them, and watch those around process them, picking up on subtle cues that betray their true feelings, hidden under a callous shell.
Arki, as a character, completed one of the single most satisfying character arcs I’ve ever read. His growth as a character, as a person, as a soldier, as an outsider in the Syldoon culture growing towards his acceptance by the group. He changes noticeably over the course of the series, however he does so gradually – never having sudden adaptations, struggling to learn new information and customs, learn new skills; still struggling with those skills by the end of the book, even after practicing them, in an incredibly realistic way. He always feels relatable, believable – you are never in doubt as to the fact that he is a simple scholar and archivist, rather than a soldier like the crew around him. Yet he does grow into his role in the company, slowly gains their trust, slowly integrates himself into the fold.
The characters around him continue to grow as well, through the series – they stick to their guns, ultimately, but change based on deaths around them, events, occurrences. Salyards is fantastic about characters not having miraculous recoveries from grievous injuries – they suffer the effects of things that happen to them for some time, are hindered by these limitations, begin to compensate for them in other ways. It’s hard to discuss ‘realism’ in a book filled with magic and godlike characters, but Jeff gives the book a feel of probability, a sense that, if the events of the book were real, that these characters were struggling and behaving as real people in that situation would. It’s a breath of fresh air, after hundreds of books where characters get sliced to pieces or have limbs broken, in a pre-hospital era, and yet are back fighting later, often the same day, as if there was no effects of their injuries.
The book and series crescendo is epic and heartbreaking. Jeff warned me of ‘big twists’ towards the end, but even with warning, I was caught totally off-guard by some of the occurrences. More than once I said “HOLY CRAP!” aloud, and more than once I messaged Jeff to give him grief for the things he did to my heart. The groundlaying for events is subtle, well-crafted, and results in a gut-punch when the big events do happen.
While action scenes are not the meat of this series, there are certainly many of them, and they’re handled very well. The craziness of battle is well represented, and while he does not go into the details and brass tacks of large-army (or even small platoon) logistics as much as he could have, you still end up with a feeling of understanding. I felt like I grasped the Syldoonian military strategies and policies, their communication methods with their troops, the potential for subterfuge and dissent among the ranks of subordinate soldiers. It was largely handled with a deft hand, not spending too much time focusing on what could come across as ‘boring’ tactical battle pieces, but still giving enough to work with and imagine the scenes.
The ending itself was both heartbreaking, and very satisfying. Even if you guess what’s coming, it still hits hard, and is an absolute rollercoaster of emotions, all across the spectrum. It’s epic, huge-scale, big implications, exciting. The fade-out epilogue closes things out in a satisfactory manner, leaving the reader with an understanding of the current state of things, without going on too long, being too sappy, being too flat. It was exactly the kind of ending to such an epic and fantastic series that I was hoping for.
There were some steep expectations and hopes for this novel, coming off of the brilliant Veil Of The Deserters, and Salyards delivers in spectacular fashion. Each consecutive book of the series was better and better, and it’s hard not to feel like Jeff has set himself up for a long, and hopefully successful, run in fantasy writing. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting his future endeavors.