I was left with several distinct impressions upon turning the final page of Sam Sykes’s latest series starter, the 700-page Seven Blades in Black.
The first was sheer delight at Sykes’s ability to come up with good character names. This story is filled with them: names that dance on your tongue and light the fire of your imagination, which only burns brighter as you begin to explore the world they inhabit (which actually also happens to be on fire for most of the novel).
There’s Cavric Proud, a soldier with the tender heart; and Stark’s Mutter, a town destroyed. There are villains of the highest order: Galta the Thorn, Riccu the Knock, Jindu the Blade, Vraki the Gate. There is Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Porcelain Vase, a nom de guerre to rule them all; and Congeniality, the bird of war.
And then, of course, there’s Sal the Cacophony.
Sal, you see, is the the other element of the book you won’t be able to forget upon closing it, even after you move on to other books, other characters, and other worlds. Because Sal is one of the most full-bodied and delicious fantasy anti-heroes in recent memory.
A battle-scarred outlaw magician, Sal is one-half of the reputation that precedes her in every town she haunts, ceaselessly hunting the names on her own personal hit list. The other half is the Cacophony, the fiery-tempered magical gun forever ready and willing to unleash mayhem upon the world.
Sal is foul-mouthed and constantly running afoul of both the imperial empire and its revolutionary foes. She is troubled by her own violent past. She is also troubling; she can’t leave a place without leaving a massive pile of bodies behind. She is flawed and flawlessly rendered. And she is funny, favoring a gallows humor you’ll get to know up close and personally through her point-of-view narration.
Sal’s presence is magnetic, which explains why she’s able to draw so many fascinating characters into her orbit as she trails a bloody path for vengeance. When we first meet her, she’s being interrogated by the hard-nosed general Tretta, to whom she recounts her life story. (Between this and Jenn Lyons’ buzzy debut, The Ruin of Kings, it’s been a good year for jailers with a lot of time on their hands.)
Tretta’s mission is to extract information and execute the prisoner. But even as Sal takes the long way around in delivering the information Tretta seeks, he finds it hard to cut off the conversation.
Who can blame her? It’s a helluva life story.
For that matter, who could blame Cavric Proud, a revolutionary soldier first abducted by Sal, then pulled into her intoxicating web of revenge? When it concerns our roguish magician with a cause, who could blame Liette, expert alchemist, for silencing her logical mind and lapping at the rage spilling over from her lover’s heart?
Sal’s orbit is littered with characters who are simultaneously repulsed and spellbound by her, a tension that may mimic your own feelings as the death toll mounts and Seven Blades in Black races toward a satisfying conclusion (though it is but the first novel in The Grave of Empires series).
Of course, you may be wondering: what exactly happens in this book? Fair question, but it’s fitting that we’ve gone this far without divulging any of the plot’s secrets—because secrets are mostly incidental to Sal, who cares only for her bloody-minded. That’s kind of the point.
Sal’s focus is on her own vengeance for past wrongs and horrific trauma. That her prey also intend to inflict unimaginable suffering on the Scar (Scar being the name of the wild and well-imagined wasteland Sal calls home) is of interest to her, but mostly as justification—a shield of righteousness for her singular pursuit.
All told, the seeds of Sykes’s previous series (Aeon’s Gate, Bring Down Heaven) are in full flower here: militarized magic, smart-mouth sorcery, complex worldbuilding, and lots and lots of gore. They are all entwined around the shoulders of a woman well-equipped to carry an entire world.
While many in the Scar regret wandering along the paths trod by Sal the Cacophony, you most certainly won’t.
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