Scourge of the Betrayer is Jeff Salyard’s debut novel and the first book in a new fantasy series, Bloodsounder’s Arc. (Though additional books in the series are forthcoming, I haven’t been able to find much information about them.) When I received it I was interested because it was said to be a “gritty” fantasy novel, and I hadn’t read one of those in awhile. While I thought there was some decent parts about Scourge of the Betrayer, I ended up deciding it was just an okay book once I had finished it.
The main story revolves around the mysterious Captain Braylar Killcoin as seen through the eyes of Arkamondos, a scribe nicknamed “Arki” he hired to chronicle his exploits. The captain and his men (and one woman, Lloi) are a rough-talking, violent crowd compared to the well-mannered, soft-spoken Arki. Killcoin and his fellow Syldoon are rumored to be quite despicable yet Arki finds the prospect of traveling with them and observing them quite fascinating and much more exciting than writing about the dull lives of merchants. He cannot resist the allure of Captain Killcoin’s dramatic and cryptic argument:
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. [pp. 10]
I couldn’t resist this persuasive plea to accompany Killcoin on his journey, either, and settled in to find out just what this momentous statement meant – only to end up very disappointed and underwhelmed by the revelations I was given.
Before I discuss why this didn’t entirely work for me, I do want to say I do not think this is a bad book and the series shows promise. As a narrator, Arki has a very engaging voice and I enjoyed viewing the rough characters through the eyes of someone who had a gentle nature. For awhile, I was reading this book at a good clip, carried along by Arki’s voice, the dialogue, the often humorous quips by Captain Killcoin, the conversations between Arki and Lloi, and the lure of answers. I wanted to know what object was in the box Captain Killcoin was so secretive about and why there were certain subjects he avoided. Gradually, throughout the course of the book there were some answers, but I felt they were not particularly original or as groundbreaking as the beginning promised. This is the first book in a series so there’s certainly time for it become as earth-shattering as promised in later volumes, but I needed more to hook me and make me want to read the next book in the series than I got in this installment. As it was, I got to the end and was quite underwhelmed by finding out what Captain Killcoin was being so secretive about.
Scourge of the Betrayer is not a long book, but it is long for the amount that happens in it. It relies more on dialogue and mystery than huge plot developments and there is a lot of travel. In a lot of cases, I actually prefer books that have this sort of focus over plot, but there wasn’t enough depth to the characters or their relationships to carry it. Captain Killcoin was initially a compelling fellow, but by the end I’d lost interest after seeing again and again how mysterious he was – at some point, a character with such mystery about them needs to have an appropriate payoff, not just additional buildup. Arki himself is an engaging character, and I did enjoy his reactions to everything he saw and the changes in his character toward the end of the book. I also enjoyed his scenes with Lloi, who was the other outcast in Killcoin’s company due to the fact that she was both female and foreign. Lloi was more intriguing to me than the captain was, and I found the camaraderie she and Arki eventually had quite compelling.
That said, Lloi is the only major female character and this novel does fail the Bechdel test. Those looking for fantasy where women are well-represented will want to look elsewhere. While she is in the company only because she has knowledge that makes her valuable to the captain, I didn’t think she only existed to be useful to him. She has a past of her own and an unusual attitude toward her circumstances, and Arki does develop respect for her as an individual on her own merits. I certainly thought she was one of the better-developed and more intriguing characters in a book that didn’t have a lot of character depth.
Scourge of the Betrayer is an okay book and there’s certainly some engaging writing, humor, and dialogue. However, I needed more to truly hook me – more plot, more character depth, more surprises that lived up to the promise set in the beginning. As it is, it’s a lot of people being violent, talking rough, and a lot of buildup centering around the mystery of the Syldoon and Captain Killcoin that just ended up being a letdown as it was revealed.
My Rating: 5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the author.