Coming to Jeff Salyards's 2012 debut novel after all the debates about so-called grimdark fantasy in the genre community over the last few months is a somewhat surprising experience, because Scourge of the Betrayer self-consciously portrays itself as the grimmest and darkest of grimdark in a straight and even boastful fashion. Beyond the suggestively brutal title, series title (Bloodsounder), and tagline ("All Empires Crumble. All Kingdoms Die"), the synopsis and blurbs refer to the book as "harsh," "profane," "shady," "brutal," and "gripping."
The grittiness does not slow when the reader opens the book up. The first five pages include threats, a mutilated woman, and a discussion that includes references to not only a "bristly bastard" but also a "priest's bunghole" (p. 5). By the time we've gotten going, our repertoire of curses has swelled to include "cunt" (p. 30) and "horsecunt" (p. 138). Sometimes things get rather disgusting. Enjoying his pre-battle habit of defecating, the captain so much of the book is about "jumped off the wagon, moved a few feet off into the grass, pulled his trousers down, and emptied his bowels as loudly and grotesquely as I'd ever heard bowels emptied, a wet explosion as if all his insides murdered him and were trying to flee the scene of the crime at once" (p. 73). At other times, all of the grittiness is nonsensical or, worse, even silly. The captain is a captain of the Syldoon, an infamous group of warriors. As we hear, "the tales of their atrocities and treachery were well known" (p. 12). Only, while treacherous might be a dark thing to call someone, it sounds more unreliable than badass. Worse, though the Syldoon captain generally goes by Braylar, his full name is the apocalyptically unsubtle Captain Killcoin.
Admittedly, this grittiness is a rather integral part of the story. What we have in Scourge of the Betrayer is, fundamentally, a tale of a fish out of water. The fish in question is Arkamondos, Arki for short, a scribe who is "bookish in the extreme" (p. 62). He agrees to become Braylar's chronicler for a chance to leave the petty and pointless lives and narratives of small-town notables behind and to find "something worth setting to parchment for once" (p. 11). He wants to record an "amazing tale" (p. 10), and he wouldn't exactly mind winning fame in the process. Needless to say, the Syldoon he is to record are nothing like he expects, and much of the book, including the entirety of its opening, consists of his being shocked by their grittiness.
Arki’s cluelessness about the military life does not, unfortunately, only extend to its grittiness. He also has no idea what the Syldoon are up to. To be fair to him, they don't tell him. The result is that the reader doesn't have any idea what the Syldoon are up to either. It is no exaggeration to say that the first full hundred pages of the book occur with both the narrator and the reader completely in the dark. The Syldoon assemble in an inn while concealing their identity—from someone, for some reason. Then they go off on a long journey, complete with multiple violent encounters on the road, all for purposes the reader has no idea of and to a destination located in god knows where. There is a running joke about how Arki asks too many questions, but, as all of them receive worthless answers like "There are many things to be explained when the time is right. You can be sure I'll know when that time is" (p. 43), I can't say that I blame him. The role of cryptic wizard is here played by a man more likely to take a shit or bash in a skull with his flail than to cast a spell or grow a white beard, but the role is still played in the most infuriating of fashions.
Once the characters have managed to arrive at the story—leaving, for all plot purposes, the journey entirely behind them—things come together in a surprisingly rapid fashion. The traveling, and the opening chapters' need to impress the reader with the book's immeasurable grittiness, now left behind, Salyards turns out to be a surprisingly effective writer. The Syldoon intrigue with a paranoid baron and a corrupted priest, Arki learns far more of what's going on, and what Arki doesn't know starts to finally feel more like blind spots left by manipulations and clashing interests rather than authorial fiat.
The Syldoon brand of spy craft culminates in a visceral battle, and Salyards proves himself a powerful writer of combat. Don't get me wrong, his fight scenes throughout the book are good in and of themselves. Salyards's prose keeps frantic motion clear and comprehensible and lends brutal weight to each blow. But those earlier fights suffered from a lack of context that led to a high-level fuzziness, no matter how well-depicted each hit might have been. Not so here. The battle goes on for thirty-eight pages, counting a brief break or two in its midst, and Salyards manages to not only earn each page but create a genuine sense of progression to the affair. We know each of the players (or at least believe that we do), and we feel their deaths. Moreover, on a sub-tactical level, Salyards describes numerous encounters without them becoming repetitive. He finds ways to make clever plans play out, and even for Arki to intervene, without things getting cheesy or his scribe suddenly leveling up into a warrior, such as when Arki manages to distract a man about to kill Braylar by firing a crossbow bolt over their heads.
Salyards's prose is not only notable on the battlefield. In fact, his style might be the novel's strongest element, though one gets the sense it is almost unintentionally so. Braylar specifies to Arki that "I didn't solicit you because you're the most sublime scribe, and I didn't hire you because you're the most lyrical; the bargain was struck because you reputedly miss nothing," and Arki must not "pollute [the account] with poetry" (pp. 9-10). In the first place, it's amusing because Arki most certainly does not catch and understand everything the Syldoon do. More importantly, though his prose is never poetic, Arki/Salyards are always, as I've said, clear, but are also ceaselessly entertaining. The writing is liberally peppered with wit. Speaking to an innkeeper, Braylar says: "We are thirsty indeed, lass. What would you suggest?" Her response? "Going to a different inn" (p. 14).
Still, pace and—though I can't believe I am saying this about a modern fantasy novel—the book's small size prove problematic. In a brick-sized epic fantasy, spending the first hundred pages in confusion would be annoying but forgivable. In a book that ends on the two hundred and fifty-fifth page, it means that almost half of our time is not so much spent appreciating Salyards's creation as it is scratching our heads or, worse, disengaging. Moreover, the short page count and overlong start combine to ensure that we end as events are only just starting to move. Early on, Braylar promises Arki that he will see (as the tagline promises) how "all empires crumble. All borders change. All kingdoms die. Where I'm taking you, you'll witness the death of a body politic, the expiration of a way of life, the redrawing of a map. Something singular and priceless" (p. 10). But only the first salvo in that momentous chain of events has been fired when Scourge of the Betrayer ends. Blood has been drawn, but neither side has been particularly damaged yet, and questions have barely been asked, let alone answered.
The book's early end leaves Salyards's front and center grittiness feeling incomplete. Salyards proves himself capable early on of unjust and painful scenes, such as when two men are taken from their beds at night to be executed, leading to the following exchange between Braylar and his lieutenant: "'Who says those two were traitors? Besides the baron’s ferret boys, that is?' 'That's all that matters'" (p. 42). Still, Salyards doesn't just paint in monochrome. He explores the darkness of his world. Braylar justifies his violence by saying that "We all make choices" (p. 37), but much of the novel seems to cast that into doubt. Lloi, the captain’s closest companion and an ex-savage, says of the raiders on the plains: "They're still my people, even if I am not theirs. Can't help who you are, Captain Noose. Can't help it none at all" (p. 69). Her situation, and the violence she has suffered and inflicted because of it, seem to fly in the face of Braylar's words. But while it's far more interesting to probe such issues than it is to simply revel in slaughter, Salyards doesn't leave himself enough time to get anywhere with his questioning, choosing instead to lower the curtain on act one of his series just after he managed to complicate it into being fascinating.
Our position several miles past the borders of grimdark also leads to a portrayal of women that is, even viewed in the kindest possible light, unsettling. Of the female characters, only Lloi has any role besides serving drinks or sex, and even she is a former prostitute. Early on, Arki tells us that "the Syldoon really did seem to have an unhealthy fixation on all things whorish" (p. 23), and he is not exaggerating. Thankfully, Salyards doesn't go farther into gritty sexuality than paid sex—but he does loudly draw attention to his drawing the line there. The novel's first few dozen pages include Braylar coming to blows to stop a woman from being sexually assaulted by another soldier and, later, Braylar agreeing to let that women stop having sex with him when she grows uncomfortable. While I wouldn't call either action immoral in and of itself, I think it says rather worrying things about a fictional society—and, more importantly from a fan's perspective, about a genre—when the hero's decision to not rape a woman is something worth trumpeting.
Scourge of the Betrayer could be a flag-bearer for the grim and gritty, and it suffers from that in some of its sillier elements and in some of its more morally questionable ones. Still, there is a story underneath the filth, and Salyards is a good enough writer to make it worth the journey once we get there. Because of its over-the-top darkness and troublesome pacing, I can't call this book more than promising, but calling it less than that would be doing a disservice to Arki's humor and Salyards's skill, much as I hope the duo's next outing is at once more complete and more restrained.