Series: The Book of the Black Earth #1
Publisher: Pyr (January 1, 2014)
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
The thought that springs to mind after finishing Blood and Iron is disappointment. It really is a shame that such a well written novel – endowed with all the attributes necessary for it to be an epic sword and sorcery “must read” – allowed a familiar fantasy trope to derail such a promising story. Unfortunately, Jon Sprunk clung too tightly to the familiar “powerless to powerful” story line, and so instead of ascending to the ranks of epic fantasy masterpiece it stopped at “Just Okay.”
As the story begins, the focus is on Horace; a widower who has joined the great crusader army dispatched to conquer their eastern neighbors. This once happily married man has witnessed everything he loved destroyed by the horrors of plague, leaving him with nothing save a longing for death in combat. But before Horace can even reach the war, a great storm destroys the ship he is traveling upon. Happily accepting his watery demise, Horace is disappointed when he awakes to discover that not only is he not dead, but he has been saved and enslaved by the very easterners he had come to kill.
Fate is a fickle thing, however, and soon, Horace’s life changes again, as he is sold to a slave caravan. There he meets and befriends a fellow slave and former gladiator named Jirom; the two of them instantly overcoming their natural distrust of each other’s culture to become the truest of friends. And when a magical, sand storm threatens to destroy the whole caravan, Horace inadvertently unlocks his unknown magical power; one that is so strong, so wild that the slave master himself looks on in amazement as the untrained westerner rises up to dispel the storm with but a thought and a raising of his hand!
An outstanding act of bravery. One that not only saves Horace, Jirom and their fellow slaves from certain death but also changes our hero’s destiny. Instantly, he is revered instead of reviled. His single, unconscious magical act freeing him from bondage and sending him to the royal court of his former enemies. A place that bedazzles the westener in its ancient splendor, but also terrifies him in its insidious political machinations. And soon, Horace wonders if he would have better served to have remained in the slave pits with Jirom than be surrounded by people who pose as his friends yet might really be his enemies.
Wow, that sounds like a great story! One where the author has an opportunity to entertain fantasy fans with some amazing world building, explore the clash of cultures, delve into the tale of a simple man given immense power he didn’t earn, and fill the pages with sword and sorcery fun. And for the majority of the time Blood and Iron does all those things until one simple thing slows down its ascendant into the fantasy stratosphere: Horace’s transformation from haunted widower to sorcerer in the royal court.
Now, the way Jon Sprunk sets up Horace’s metamorphosis is perfectly plausible inside the bounds of the culture he find himself in. Magic is worshipped as divine. If you have it, you are yourself deemed divine and worthy of inclusion into the upper echelons of society. So there is nothing inherently unrealistic about what occurs to Horace. But, personally, the path to the royal palace is a bit too fast for my tastes; Horace’s rise from despised foreigner to beloved new kid in town too much for me to accept, even though I desperately attempted to suspend my sense of reality and force myself to believe that Horace could evolve from “powerless to powerful” this quickly.
Alas, once Horace’s astounding good fortune soured me on his odyssey, the other characters in the novel were not able to carry Blood and Iron without him as the compelling center piece. Jirom’s personal journey was very unique and interesting with several twists and turns that took me by surprise, but his limited page time condemned him to a decidedly supportive role. Alyra might have appeared to hold amazing potential, but she only scratches the surface of that. And Queen Byleth, while decidedly entertaining and multi-faceted in her behavior and motives, could only carry so many scenes.
Even with that criticism, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and felt that Mr. Sprunk did a lot of good things. The middle eastern setting was well done. The writing was superb with tons of very detailed descriptions of people and settings that brought the land to life before your eyes. There are more than a few characters who shine (even if sporadically): the Queen being my favorite. So even though I could not accept Horace’s sudden rise from slave to master, I do not view this first installment in The Book of the Black Earth as a bad story, or one not worth reading. Sure, there are some problems here, but I will be giving Mr. Sprunk the benefit of the doubt that he can correct those issues in the next installment of the series and deliver on the great promise this epic sword and sorcery tale holds.
I received this book from Pyr in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.