Genre: Grimdark fantasy
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It’s been awhile since I’ve written a book review. Blade of the Destroyer has been a grimdark fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for awhile now, not because it’s a difficult read but rather because between packing/moving from Kansas to Kentucky and then teaching three collegiate writing courses I’ve had to prioritize my reading.
Fortunately, Peloquin has crafted a story that can be both easily digested in snippets and ravenously consumed in longer stretches. He has also been very savvy in his promotion of this first novel of his series. There are a slew of reviews that address the plot of Blade of the Destroyer. I’m less interested in re-hashing or summarizing the story’s action and more interested in examining the themes I see in Peloquin’s novel.
As I mentioned, I’ve had to prioritize my reading but when I got into Peloquin’s novel I discovered that it was perfectly suited for both stop-start reading and binge reading. A lot of this is due to his narrow narrative focus. We are experiencing this world from a singular perspective: The Hunter, a nameless quasi-magical being with a mysterious bond to the dagger Soulhunger. The Hunter lacks any memory of his life before the immediate present of the story wherein he is an assassin for hire in the city of Voramis.
Peloquin keeps our point of view behind The Hunter’s eyes as he experiences the city carrying out his contracts. World-building isn’t lacking in this first book of The Last Bucelarii series, but our focus is solely on the city. The religion of this world is revealed to us as The Hunter conducts his business through different quarters of the city. We learn of the thirteen deities of this world, their various temples and servants, and how they are interwoven with the everyday goings on of the city. We discover Voramis is a city spliced up among the aristocratic ruling class, a citywide mafia, and the more orthodox enforcers of the local religion. The names for these and other factions are appropriate for the genre–The Bloody Hand, The Dark Heresy, The Hidden Circle, and The Secret Keepers. What is nice about these factions is that we’re not bogged down by their motivations or elaborate explanation. Rather, as the The Hunter acts encountering these factions the information revealed is applicable to the situation, to the conversation being had. Peloquin avoids forced exposition, and that’s a true talent in the genre.
I do wish though that he had carried over that same acumen to the internal monologue of The Hunter. Specifically, when The Hunter is debating/arguing with the semi-sentient Soulhunger. I felt that too often the repetition was excessive, that I was being told what to think/feel rather than just being allowed to think/feel for myself. It’s vital in any fiction that a reader feels as though s/he is coming to the author’s conclusions on their own. I know I always struggle with this when I craft my own fictions, and I’ve become acutely aware of it when I read other’s work. But this was a relatively minor and subjective glitch.
It took a backseat to just how engaging the queer symbiosis here is. It is the dark, mysterious magic inherent in the blade that seems to make The Hunter virtually unkillable (Peloquin gives readers several scenes where The Hunter is put to the test to see just how much mortal damage he can take). The Hunter is who he is because of the cryptic bond he has with the weapon and its constant murderous demands upon him. Here we see a clever device.
Soulhunger can only be ignored for so long before the demands become too much for The Hunter. The blade requires use. The Hunter has crafted a means to sate the need while also providing himself with a purpose–practical and existential (he has convinced himself that he only takes contracts of those who deserve to die). A piece of cloth touched to Soulhunger will allow The Hunter to locate the owner, thus giving him the means to find his quarry and the device to execute his task.
Soulhunger becomes the voice in The Hunter’s mind telling him to kill, and he is more than willing to embrace this imperative. There is no point where The Hunter shows any kind of remorse or hesitancy in what he is doing. Although this is the story of a man coming to terms with his dark side, this particular aspect of who he is has clearly been well sorted before our tale begins. I love this about the story. Instead of using flashback or trying to force this character into some ham-fisted, situational exposition Peloquin simply owns the character’s nature. It is what it is. Full stop.
Moral ambiguity isn’t the struggle, because The Hunter has a clear moral code. It places him in the category of villain to those with more stringent requirements for what makes a hero. But Peloquin has made his main character into a wonderful anti-hero and, I would argue, a fabulous anti-Christ figure.
By anti-Christ, I don’t mean the devil or demon (although that connotation is deliciously appropriate to the story). Many stories resort to the sacrifice aspect of the Christ figure. Peloquin gives us a man that comes to love the poor, the sullied, and defenseless seeing in them what is most human and that provoking in himself what is the most humane. Just like a proper Christ figure, The Hunter wants to redeem these people. But he is not a character who is willing to put himself forward as a sacrifice. Rather, The Hunter is one who will enact retribution in their name to redeem them (and by proxy, himself). This is how The Hunter becomes more than a mere mercenary.
Another review characterized Blade of the Destroy as “Sin City meets Assassin’s Creed meets Priest” and that feels apt. It’s definitely the kind of story that fans of games like Dragon Age and The Witcher will enjoy. Because there is but one main character and the adversary he has to face, all other characters are truly minor existing only to move along The Hunter on his ‘quest.’
Reading the novel, I got a very cinematic vibe from it. For me, it was especially in how The Hunter is a master of disguise. He doesn’t merely change his dress, he crafts whole realistic masks, lives out an intricate backstory, and performs the persona. It’s a wonderful meta moment within the narrative where the main character performs a story within the story. I imagined this book as a movie or show with several actors playing The Hunter when he has changed his face and body–a kind of CGI morph from the persona to The Hunter. It’d be neat.
Some last notes, Peloquin writes excellent fight scenes. They are vivid, precise, and although rather bloody are for the most part meaningful to the plot rather than gratuitous. As a pacifist who can’t write a good physical fight scene, I’m jealous of his combat writing.
What was a bit of stumbling block for me was the esoteric style of cussing throughout the novel. As a casually profane individual, I have zero issues with cursing or cussing. But too often I found myself snorting or laughing aloud while reading; it felt like these scenes were unintentionally funny. Then, it became an eye-rolling distraction. But, I had just watched Get Hard, so I may be being too nitpicky.
Courier Balgos slunk through the slums of Beggars Row, gagging at the stench of the litter-strewn streets. He wore the simple robes of a messenger, but even his humble clothing contrasted sharply with the staggering poverty around him.
The smell of refuse, ordure, and death rose from myriad piles of the-gods-knew-what, hanging in a miasma so thick he could almost taste it.
By the gods, if only there was some way to block out this stench.
He placed his feet with care, studying the ground as he walked.
I hope I don’t step in—
“Shit!” he cursed aloud. Warm wetness filled his boot, causing him to gag.
Thank the Illusionist I didn’t have breakfast, or it might join the rest of the fragrances in this horrible place.
Two days had passed since the Feast of Illusionist’s Night, and Balgos still struggled with the after-effects of too much strong drink. His head had stopped pounding, but his stomach still recoiled at the thought of food.
“Please, sir,” a voice warbled from a nearby pile of rags, “a coin?”
From the heap emerged a scarred, pox-ridden face. The man’s mouth held few teeth, and a wart protruded from his broken nose. The eyes stared at him with a dull, listless expression. A grubby hand reached towards the courier, gnarled fingers covered in a thick crust of grime. Flaking flesh fell from the beggar’s arms and hands.
“Get away from me, filth!” Balgos yelled at the leper, his eyes growing wide in horror. The messenger made the warding sign of the Maiden and hurried away.
I have to get the frozen hell out of here before I catch something!
The messenger muttered oaths under his breath, cursing the Hunter and his need for secrecy. He desperately wanted to flee Beggar’s Row, but he had a task to complete first.
He scanned the street, searching for the sign of The Rusted Dangle. Relief flooded him as he rounded a corner in the street and spotted the inn.
I just have to deliver my message and I can take a very long bath!
The Rusted Dangle stood—barely, he thought—at the end of the lane. It appeared to be a nail away from collapsing. Its roof slanted at a dangerous angle, and far too many hastily constructed support beams held up the building.
Rust had worn away the phallic sign depicting the inn’s name, suspended on a rope so frayed that a light breeze could blow it down. The inn’s front doors hung from hinges older than Voramis itself, and Balgos feared he would rip them out of the wall if he pushed too hard.
The interior of the inn matched its dilapidated exterior. The furniture consisted of tables and chairs cobbled together from scraps of wood that had no right being used for construction.
Behind the bar, stood a balding innkeeper that looked as old as the inn itself. “What can I get you, lad?” the man asked, his tone pleasant.
I must be his first paying customer in years, thought Balgos.
The messenger strode toward the bar, opening his mouth to answer. A raconteur in bright clothing bumped into him, almost knocking him over.
“Watch where you’re going, fuckwit!” Balgos yelled at the man.
The traveling entertainer muttered something in response, and the courier gagged at the man’s putrid breath.
That swill he drinks must be brewed in a latrine, he thought, pushing the man away.
The drunk hardly noticed the insult and the shove, simply stumbling toward an ancient-looking table in a darkened corner of the bar.
Balgos wiped his hands on his tunic in disgust, trying to scrub away the filth from the raconteur’s clothing.
“Room four,” he demanded of the bartender.
The balding innkeeper waved a pudgy hand towards the hall at the opposite end of the tavern. “Right that way, sir. But first, might I offer you something to eat or drink?”
The courier summoned every shred of etiquette he possessed. “Another time, perhaps,” he replied with a forced smile as he turned away from the bar.
A quiet “ahem” sounded behind the courier. He turned back to see the pub landlord wearing an apologetic smile on his face, his hand held out expectantly.
“Two coppers for use of the room, sir,” the bald proprietor said with an oily smile.
Balgos rolled his eyes and fished a pair of copper bits from his purse. He deposited the coins in the innkeeper’s hand with a scowl, but the man appeared not to notice. The coins disappeared into a purse beneath his clothing, and he returned to his futile task of wiping the filthy bar with an even filthier cloth.
The floorboards of the dark hallway creaked beneath Balgos’ feet, and the scent of year-old unwashed sheets filled his nose.
No wonder the Hunter likes this place, he thought. No one in his right mind would ever stay the night here.
The door stood unlocked, and he hesitantly pushed it open. The room beyond was dark, the window covered with thick oilcloth to block out the light.
Balgos closed the door and waited in silence, trying not to inhale the foul scents of the darkened room.
“I hear you’re looking for me.” The deep voice echoed in the stillness.
“Keeper’s icy balls!” Balgos cursed, startled. The courier jerked back, instinctively moving away from the threatening figure materializing before him.
I didn’t even see him enter the room!
“What the f—?”
“You came for a reason, I assume,” the Hunter cut him off.
Balgos snapped his mouth shut, fighting to calm his racing heart. The Hunter towered over him, his silhouette framed against the dim light filtering through the covered window. Balgos couldn’t see the assassin’s face, nor did he want to.
“Sir Hunter,” he said, struggling to keep his voice calm, “I come with an unusual request.”
The Hunter could have been made of stone for all the response he gave. The silence unnerved the courier and set his hands trembling.
“Right,” Balgos stammered, “er…um…well…right.” He drew in a deep breath before continuing. “My…er…master requests that you visit him in his home. He—”
“I don’t make house calls,” the harsh voice of the Hunter interrupted.
“I know, sir, but I believe you will want to make an exception. My master is—”
“I don’t care who your master is. If he wants to meet me, he will do so on my terms. The door is behind you.”
“My master is unable to move around the city, or else he would meet with you in person.”
Silence answered him.
“But,” Balgos burst out in desperation, “my master will pay your normal fee just to hear what he has to say, and double if you agree to take the contract.”
The room remained silent.
Has he gone? Am I talking to an empty room?
“I am considering your master’s offer,” the Hunter intoned, his voice thoughtful.
Balgos’ heart pounded in his chest, and sweat trickled down his back as he waited for the assassin’s answer.
“Very well,” came the voice from the darkness. “The payment?”
Balgos removed a heavy purse from within his robes, extending it towards the Hunter. The Hunter roughly plucked it from his hands, and the courier heard coins clinking in the darkness.
“Tell your master I will call upon him tonight,” came the rough voice of the Hunter.
“Thank you!” Balgos gasped in relief. “My master will be pleased to hear it.”
“Where would your master like me to meet him?”
“At the Villa Camoralia, in the—”
“I know the place,” the harsh voice interrupted.
“Excellent! I will pass your message along to him, then. He will be pleased to hear it.”
Without a backward glance, Balgos fled.
He rushed through the dim taproom and pushed through the front doors without even a nod to the bartender. In his haste, he failed to notice the fact that the inebriated raconteur in his outrageous bright clothing no longer sat at his table.
The foul streets of Beggar’s Row rushed by, yet still he ran, heedless of the voices crying out for coin, food, or drink. Only when he reached the Merchant’s Quarter did he slow.
“Fucking Hunter,” he cursed, turning his steps toward Upper Voramis and the Villa Camoralia.