Reading “Steel, Blood & Fire” has made me realize just how much I love dark fantasy. I’ve read all the Game of Thrones books available, enjoy the grey and bleak world in The Mistborn series, I loved the desolate feeling that books like “Inheritance of Ashes” present, but never really thought much about it other than I liked those books a lot. Then Batchelder presented me with his novel, and Tarmun Vykers. There is no reason to like Vykers. The man is an unstoppable killing machine who has killed a whole populace just for an insult. The guy is a bastard, but I loved him! How Batchelder wrote his main protagonists, as well as the handful of supporting characters who evolved over the course of the book to become just as vital as our anti-hero, was done masterfully well in its subtly (which is something longer reads can pull off really well). This was a fun read, but it’s certainly not for everyone.
I’m going to state the obvious real quick, as the author makes this note on the synopsis, too: this is a book for MATURE READERS ONLY. There’s a lot of violence which is to be expected, but Batchelder doesn’t shy away from inflicting it upon the innocent or describing it. Again, it fits wonderfully for the tone, but is not going to bode well for those who like clean fantasies. There’s also a lot of foul mouthed soldiers. Again, I feel like that should go without saying but I just wanted to reiterate that before I get into the meat of the review.
This book starts with the untouchable Vykers being captured by the monarch he was trying to topple, only to lose the very things he needs most to fight—oh irony! After being humbled, Vykers is left to fend for himself, which he does with great difficulty, until he meets the spirit of a dead Shaper (think mage). From that moment on, Vykers attempts to rebuild his life, until the very monarch that crippled him captures him again and tells him he’s the only one who can save her kingdom, nay, THE WORLD from a power mad sorcerer with an unlimited supply of magic and an exhaustible army. Funny how things tend to work out that way… But when the world is about to be destroyed by a thing of legend, you must fight it with another thing of legend who, despite all odds, is still alive and remains very much a killing machine. Arm that man with a magic sword, some hybrid-humans, and the biggest army you can muster, and things are bound to get exciting!
That being said, this book takes a bit to take off. For the first hundred pages or so, I didn’t know why we even cared about characters like Long Pete, Spirk, or Aoife. Their POVs felt unnecessary and far less interesting then the sections focused on Vykers. But around the 120 page mark, the story picks up, the characters feel more defined, and the plot takes off. Even though this book is over 500 pages long, once you get past that slow start, it doesn’t feel long at all and becomes a truly enjoyable ride IF you enjoy dark fantasies where everything feels bleak and no character is safe.
At just shy of 30% in you start to see why Long and his companions are important and why their plight is so heartbreaking. You start to realize that Aoife has a much larger role to play when it comes to bringing down The-End-Of-All-Things, and start to get excited to see how this young woman—a healer no less!—is supposed to fight a being who enslaves everyone he comes across. But while Aoife grew on me, she is the weakest of the characters in the book. She is a powerful woman, and even when the odds are against her she never felt like a damsel (well done, Batchelder!), but compared to the other characters and their dynamic personalities when they engage with others, Aoife was just the least engaging of the bunch. It doesn’t make her a bad character, just her counterparts tended to outshine her, even when she is raining hell upon those who wronged her. And while Vykers hybrid-human companions never felt that concrete to me, the Shaper who helps Vykers (and also shares his body… awkward) feels like a full bodied character, even without a body!
Batchelder has crafted a rich, grimdark world with fantastic creatures, unimaginable magic, and a cast of characters who are deliciously flawed and not the heroes you expect, but come to enjoy none the less. Vyker’s no-nonsense attitude was a delight, and the humor the author employs—and at just the right places, too—help keep the story from getting overwhelmingly dark and depressing, because no one likes those stories. My only problem was with the POV’s the reader is presented with, the main villain, and the magic system. Allow me to explain:
The author usually separates the sections out with a heading that lets you know which character we are joining and where, but sometimes this got muddled and two characters POV’s melded together making it a bit confusing. Additionally, The-End-Of-All-Things wasn’t scary, shall we say? He doesn’t have a great reason for being the way he is other than he just has this desire to destroy everything. I would have liked more of a character arc there, but he was a fun villain you wanted to see toppled all the same. And while I enjoyed the magic and the fey creatures we are introduced to, the magic system never felt well defined. There didn’t seem to be a limit to what the Shapers could do. Basically, as long as the mage was powerful enough, they could do literally anything. While that’s fun, it leads to problems when you try to better understand just what these beings are capable of, what is supposed to be beyond their limits, and just what is up with the magic in this world in general.
Come the end of the book, however, I found myself so invested in Long Pete, Vykers, and his Shaper friend, Arune’s stories, that I didn’t want the book to end. Weird, right? A 500+ page book that I didn’t want to end? Stranger things have happened. This is definitely a series you’ll want to check out, and I recommend it to any mature reader who enjoys epic, dark fantasies and has the time to invest in Vykers, Long Pete, and Arune because you’re going to want to follow them around for a while! If it weren’t for my small hang ups about POV and the ambiguous magic system, this book would be 5 stars, easily. But I’ll give it a high 4.5 and round up when necessary. Thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for review!