Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: The Hammer and the Blade

The Hammer and the Blade, an upcoming release from Angry Robot books, is a classic "Sword and Sorcery" style fantasy tale.  The tiny bit of experience I have in reading Sword and Sorcery-style fantasy is quite a few years behind me, so reading this ARC was as much a re-freshening in the sub-genre as it was an opportunity to read, enjoy and review a book.

I'll admit, I wasn't totally convinced I was a fan of Sword and Sorcery fantasy prior to cracking this book open, but The Hammer and the Blade goes a long ways towards making me a fan as it surges out of the gate with the action and adventure cranked up to eleven, and takes no prisoners from start to finish.

The story begins as the two main protagonists, Nix, a skilled thief, and Egil, a hulking priest with a talent for wielding twin war-hammers, are in the midst of raiding a tomb.  Upon reaching the final chamber, they do battle with a serpentine demon, kill it, relieve the burial chamber of some treasure, then return home to buy their favorite tavern and retire to a life of luxury and excessive drinking...Well, that's the plan at least.

Too bad that demon Egil and Nix killed happened to belong to the Thyss; a powerful family of hell spawn made more powerful thanks to a pact with the Norisstru family, a family of sorcerers. The pact between the two houses involves the demon Thyss mating with Norisstru females, thus populating each house with magically powerful heirs.

That pact is about to expire, and Rakon, the head of the Norisstru family, discovers that his connection in the Thyss family has recently been killed by two lowly grave robbers...Not the best news to hear when trying to uphold a centuries-old pact.  With time running out to renew the pact, Rakon uses his magics to find a living Thyss and discovers that one lives, but is trapped by powerful sorcery.  With the help of his guard squad and some compelling magic, Rakon enlists the aid of Egil and Nix to free the demon in time to secure the pact for another generation.

As if being recruited against their will wasn't shitty enough, their journey to free the demon just so happens to cut directly through a forsaken piece of land called The Demon Wastes.  On top of that, the spell Rakon used on Egil and Nix will kill them if they don't complete the task, and to top it all off, Rakon's sisters, magically drugged and along for the journey are meddling inside Nix's head. It's a bleak set of circumstances for sure, but it makes for a pretty damn entertaining read.

Egil and Nix, the primary characters of the novel got off to a rocky start for me.  At first glance, there's not much about either one of them that feels all that fresh or unique.  However, I did enjoy their epic-bro relationship, and their charming, witty banter.  The fact that the author, Paul S. Kemp, was able to so deftly add a nice humor element to a story that is quite intense and tragic was an impressive feat.   In the end, I was won over by Egil and Nix's charm.  Despite having a familiar feel, Kemp manages to instill his heroes with enough qualities to make them compelling and not just a recycling of familiar fantasy character designs.

Kemp's writing skills are at their sharpest when the sharp pointy objects come out.  The action sequences here are quite impressive.  The Hammer and the Blade is a fast-paced read, and the armed conflicts come fast and furious.  Kemp has a remarkable knack for making these clashes feel deadly and dangerous.  His choreography of battles is always quite clear and easy to follow, but most importantly, fun.  I haven't read very many other authors who write action sequences with such skill.

Egil and Nix can handle themselves in a fight, but Kemp throws them into some incredibly tight spots.  What I really liked about the action sequences is that for every time Egil and Nix had to rely on their skill at arms, there were equally as many times where they had to rely on their brains too.  This was a nice way to add variety to the action, and keep it interesting and engaging.

Those action sequences wouldn't have been nearly as interesting without some great foes, and boy oh boy, does Kemp deliver. I'm a big fan of monsters, and there's plenty of foul beasts and demons to be had here. Kemp created some really cool fantastical beasts, which made the battling and slaying of said beasts all the more exciting.

I was most impressed with how Kemp handled his villain Rakon. Despite his dastardly deeds, it is still possible to understand his motives and see that at his core, he is driven by doing what he believes to be best.  Sure, he's a slimy bastard, but Kemp makes him a believable slimy bastard.  In many ways, Rakon and his relationship with his sisters is the most interesting aspect of the novel.  There's a lot of sadness and tragedy here, and the book wouldn't have been half as good if Kemp hadn't handled this aspect so well.

In the end, I find myself feeling slightly torn over this book.  There are times when many of the elements at play in The Hammer and the Blade will feel familiar and well-worn.  However, Kemp seems aware of this and seemingly channels his efforts into giving the reader a fresh take on Sword and Sorcery, all while maintaining that familiar feel you'd get from reading Leiber or Howard .  I can't say that I totally loved this book, but there's a lot of great stuff here. In the final tally, the positives outweigh the negatives.

The Hammer and the Blade is a fun and entertaining read, with great action and a plot with absolutely zero drag.  In sum: If you like your fantasy to have stakes that are more personal than epic, and if you like heroes who are short on morals, then The Hammer and the Blade is for you. You'll get a heavy dose of action and adventure, and a plot that will make it hard to put this book down.  If you are looking for a fun read where the pages fly by, then this is needs to be on your summer reading list.

Grade: B-

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