Scourge of the Betrayer is one of those rare books. A novel that takes the familiar tropes of a particular genre, tweaks them ever so slightly until you (a long time reader) find that your expectations of that genre have been suddenly raised to a new level.
And how did Jeff Salyards do that, you ask?
Well, mainly, he did it by refusing to be confined by the familiar, formulaic pattern of grimdark fantasy. Where most “grims” cover their pages with equal parts gore-coated combat, cynical characters, sexual situations, harsh language, and gritty worlds, Scourge embraces those elements but does not stop with them, adding a layer of realism and attention to detail that elevates this standard “grim” story into a realistic, tour-de-force of fantasy. Indeed, Mr. Salyards creates a world where armor actually does protect you in combat. Where there are no “Chosen Ones” or godlike heroes or all-powerful villains. Where magic is present but not scattered around like motes of dust. Where your favorite character might appear as a “good guy” one moment only to seem a “bad guy” the next. And where anyone, ANYONE can die if plans do not work out or a blow is mistimed or too many foes appear. All things that might sound like normal grim but are so much more in this story.
Mr. Salyards throws readers into his realistic grimdark world from the first page; the first person narrator of the tale being a young man named Arkamandos (or Arki for short.) This youth has just been hired by Captain Braylar Killcoin, leader of a band of Syldoon soldiers, to be their company’s scribe. And while Arki is very wary of his new employers (They are the fiercest, most vicious soldiers in the world), he explains his reason for joining up with them as:
I had no family, or none that had claimed me as such for years, and no friendships of any lasting duration. The promise of being part of something larger than my life—which admittedly, up to this point hadn’t exactly been consequential or noteworthy—was exciting, even if my involvement was restricted to observing and recording. At least it would presumably be something worth setting to parchment for once. And there was no denying the draw to that.
This desire to be part of a grand, epic adventure is exactly why Arki is the perfect narrator for the story that follows, for he is in the exact same shoes as his audience: a spectator completely in the dark as to what is actually going on. For there doesn’t seem to be any dark lord to defeat here or epic war to wage or apocalyptic event to stop – well, not that Arki knows about anyway. Instead, Captain Braylar and his men have their own secret agenda; a plan that they have no intention of willingly sharing with anyone. And so, Arki is left to listen to the conversation of his employers, gather clues as to their intentions, and piece together theories about their motives, goals, and true aims. All the while never knowing if his guesses are anywhere close to accurate.
And as Arki leads readers along on this grand adventure to discover the why of it all, Mr. Salyards carefully uses the interactions between the young scribe and the other characters to slowly sculp vibrant people, not grimdark caricatures of humanity, but real, living, breathing people who gradually come into focus. Don’t be surprised when there are not any long soliloquies where the characters intentionally reveal their inner demons or hidden desires or troubled past to you, because Mr. Salyard does not spoon feed anyone. Instead, he forces you to live day to day along with Arki, reading his interpretations of his traveling companions, his beliefs about their personalities, and his assessment of their actions, making you use the youth’s observations to form your own opinions about these three-dimensional people who surround him.
While this gradual development of plot and characters could have ruined the pacing of the story, it did not do so. For even though the beginning is slow and a tad confusing, Mr. Salyards deftly places clues throughout the narrative, stringing a reader along. Each suspected insight into Braylar’s plans building a little more excitement, each small revelation about his history adding a touch more drama to the tale until you can’t wait to turn the page, hoping to find the next part of the puzzle that Mr. Salyards has so expertly hidden from view.
But this is a grimdark, so where is the bloody combat, you ask?
Oh, it is here. Braylar is a man of action, willing to trade a few humorous slurs with his opponent before wielding his exotic flail to crush their skulls, and his Syldoon are constantly in the thick of the action. Blood and gore coat the pages, especially after the halfway point of the book, with the fighting coming fast and furious (though Arki presents it more from the point of view of a witness than a participant), and always Mr. Salyards deftly crafts these fights with utmost realism. No overpowered godlike warriors here. Even the most experienced fighter only one step away from getting struck down in battle. A fact that makes the fights even more gripping, as you wonder if anyone is safe from the grim reaper in this world.
As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and there are lots of further things I’d like to say about the story, but I can’t – to do so would reveal too many spoilers and ruin the fun for you. Perhaps it will suffice for me to write that Scourge of the Betrayer took everything that I love about grimdark, added in a touch of realism, and coupled those things with a slow-developing, character-driven story that made me constantly strive to figure out what was going on. It is quite simply a great fantasy read.
So, with all that being said, I highly recommend this one to grimdark fans, lovers of character-driven stories, fantasy fans, and all those that just adore tales that make you think. Have fun reading!