“Dust and Scars” – ‘Seven Blades in Black’ by Sam Sykes – A Review

First off; hey it’s my first book review on this blog! Woohoo! Look, I do more than complain about Game of Thrones and worship Marvel films!

Secondly: This is the first of Sam Sykes’ books I’ve read, so there is no comparison or bias towards or against him. Saying that, even if there was something swaying me either way, it’d be well and truly discarded, because this book knocks it out of the fucking park.

House-Keeping time: Mild Spoilers for this book to follow. I won’t reveal exact plot details, but I’ll use some quotes and talk a little about the character arcs as a whole.

This book is exactly my cup of tea. Its got prose dripping with wit and wisdom, its got big action scenes with cool magic shooting about, and its got a leading lady who is both sarcastic and sorrowful in equal measure.

It did not take much for me to fall in love with this book, and Sal the Cacophony. Within the first few pages I was there. Saying that, any book that opens with a line like this one, I’m bound to love;

“Everyone loved a good execution.”

Like c’mon?! I was there, living and breathing this world immediately. And it doesn’t let up from there. I am well and truly investing in Sam Sykes’ other books, because damn, his style just clicks for me. He has the comedic style and timing of authors such as Nicholas Eames, but still manages to effortlessly drop little pearls of cynical wisdom akin to the likes of Joe Abercrombie (and if there’s one author I love, it’s Joe Abercrombie.)

Our story opens with Sal captured by The Glorious Revolution, a military nation reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and under interrogation by Governor-Militant Tretta Stern. It is here Sal begins to tell her story, and we jump between Tretta’s third person narration, to Sal’s first person narrative as she recounts the details of the past that led up to her capture. There’s perhaps just over half a dozen chapters from Tretta’s POV, but she still feels like a fully realised character, a protagonist in her own right, which I find rather remarkable. Usually these are the parts of a book I would either skim read (I know, sacrilege!), or would just slow up my reading of a book entirely as I put it down at these regular break points. But for Seven Blades? This was not an issue. Sal’s witty banter was still there, but seeing it from the outside added an extra layer to her, especially as Tretta began to see through the thin veneer of bravado that Sal exudes.

But, naturally, Sal’s story is the meat of this book (and it is a meaty book, coming in at just under 700 pages). When it began, I had set myself up for a story of mages, outlaws, and a lot of bloodshed. What I didn’t expect was a story of PTSD, sorrow, and a whole lot of love. Sal is exactly my kind of hero. The kind you want to just grab and shake really hard, tell them to get over themselves, tell them to stop being such a selfish shit and do the right thing for once in their fucking lives. But you know they won’t, and that’s the broken beauty of Sal the Cacophony. She is fundamentally broken, and no matter how hard you want it to happen, she never fixes herself. Sal doesn’t particularly grow or change in this novel, and that’s alright. Not every character has to become a different person by the end of their story, not everyone is Ebenezer Scrooge. Sal reflects the reality of life. Real people don’t just change. Some people can’t be fixed.

I think, however, this is why I kept coming back to Sal. Why I stuck with her. Yes I wanted to see her get her vengeance. But I also wanted Sal to change. I wanted her to give up this mad quest, to try and live a life of normality, to settled down in the little town of Lowstaff with Liette (more on the lovely Liette in a minute). I knew she never would, but fuck sake, a man can hope! And so, I suffered through this book, but in a very satisfying way. I never felt angry at Sal, I only ever felt disappointed, a slightly hollow sadness, knowing that this was always going to happen, this was always the path that she would walk.

I realised this early on, but it takes Liette, Sal’s friend and love interest, a good while to realise that her lover is too far gone to be saved. Liette is a Freemaker, a builder, a fixer, a healer. All she wants to do is fix Sal.

“Tell me what I have to do. Tell me what I have to say. There has to be something I can do, something I can say to fix this, some way to make you normal.”

These right here are the lines that just broke my heart. I’ll come out and say it, I’m a romantic at heart, alright? I hate romance novels, but I always enjoy a little bit of it as flavouring to any other novel. Sal and Liette, yeah, I’m there for that relationship. I just wanted it to work, mainly because it’s what Liette wanted, and I just want that little book-loving, bullet-making, cute-glasses-wearing woman to have all the happiness in the world. Honestly, she deserves it, for all the shit Sal puts her through.

Someone else who deserves better as well is Revolutionary Low-Sergeant Cavric Proud. Like Liette, Sal drags him through so much mud and shit over the course of this book. And yet he sticks by her, unlike Liette who comes to her senses. Cavric ploughs on through, because he has to. He’s a man who believes in the idea of a Greater Good, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t do his best to protect those that can’t protect themselves. He resents Sal and all she does, but he sticks by her, because even if she doesn’t mean it, she does help people.

“You can tear down the nasty shit in this world. But someone’s going to have to build something better back up.”

I just loved Cavric and his story through this novel, and I really hope to see more of him in the sequel. Sykes seems to save his best quotes for when it comes to Sal’s observations of him. I could fire a good dozen down here, but I’ll just leave you with one that has stuck with me ever since I read it, and I can’t really explain why:

“A funerary silence fell between us.

The loudest sound in the world is a man of faith beginning to doubt. And over it, I couldn’t hear anything else.”

Sam Sykes giving me fucking chills!!

So… Guess all I have to say is Cavric Proud deserved better, Sam Sykes!!

But then again, everyone deserves better in this book. Everyone except the bad guys. They deserve every curse Sal spits at them, every blade she swings at them, and every bullet her magical gun fires at them.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that? Sal the Cacophony gets her name from her sentient magic revolver. The Cacophony, perhaps the most badass weapon I’ve ever come across in fantasy (and there are a few), also happens to be one of the most Heavy Metal things I have ever had the joy to read about. His origin is largely unknown, only that he came to Sal in her darkest hour and offered her a deal. A deal only described as ‘Revenge for Ruin’. I think it’s possible to piece together who The Cacophony is before it’s revealed, which I think is a bit of a shame. I hate piecing something together in my head and then finding out I was right, I prefer to be tricked. But hey ho, it’s not the end of the world. I had the same issue with Sal’s backstory as well, which you don’t actually find out about until the last 200 pages of this mammoth novel. I had a pretty solid theory before it was finally revealed, and I was once again, disappointingly correct.

These are not huge negatives on the book, however, because the plot still takes some interesting and unexpected directions, especially towards the end, the final few chapters having a good few twists and turns I did not see coming. It’s not massively inventive in terms of storyline, however, it stays pretty safe in terms of structure, and it borrows a lot of tropes from Westerns (and that is not a bad thing mind you, I love me some Cowboy inspired action). It remains a revenge thriller from start to finish, after all. The real strength comes in the worldbuilding, specifically how Magic works in this world.

In Dungeons and Dragons, my favourite class is the Warlock. I love the idea of gaining magical powers by giving something up, or making a sacrifice, or making a deal with some monstrous unknowable entity. So when it is details that the Mages in this book must pay a price for every time they use their magic? I was there. That’s such a nice concept, and while not particularly original, Sykes makes it work really well here. There are a number of different types of mages, from Doormages, who can teleport themselves and others, to Skymages who can manipulate the wind to fly and summon a storm around them, to Seigemages who literally make themselves heavier so that they can bust through walls and bring down gates with nothing but their fists. It’s all so very cool, so extra points for that!

I’m going to digress for a moment now, before I give my final verdict. Ever since reading Nicholas Eames’ ‘Kings of the Wyld’ back in 2017, I have realised that if you get the right music for a book, then the book can become ten times more spectacular. Sometimes I never find the right music for a book. Sometimes I find stuff that is spot on. For ‘Seven Blades in Black’, I’d like to share the playlist for you lovely folks who probably aren’t reading this to have a listen to, and maybe use yourself. I dunno, here it is:

All-in-all, Sykes has written a killer novel here, one I thoroughly recommend and will be really pushing into peoples hands when I’m at work (I work in a bookshop, duh!). With a badass main character and two (technically three, counting the sentient gun) well rounded and compelling secondary characters to push her along, the story flows very nicely from setting to setting, some really dramatic action scenes thrown in to keep us all excited.

I give it a solid 9/10 stars, and I’m really looking forward to the sequel that I hear is in the works!

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