Although Jeff Salyards' debut, Scourge of the Betrayer, showed some potential, its relatively short length, uneven pace, and lack of worldbuilding precluded the book from being a truly satisfying read. Indeed, it felt as though it was only part of a novel, with a somewhat arbitrary ending that did nothing to close the show with any kind of aplomb. Not a full novel, in and of itself.
In Veil of the Deserters, the author doesn't make the same mistakes twice and this one turned out to be a better read overall. Mind you, there are pacing issues throughout the book and the first person narrative of the archivist once again leaves a lot to be desired. But this second volume resounds with a lot more depth and actually makes you eager to find out how it will all end in the upcoming final installment.
Here's the blurb:
Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual. The Syldoonian Emperor, Cynead, has solidified his power in unprecedented ways, and Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be far more complicated and dangerous than even Killcoin could predict. Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and Soffjian are at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is unsurprisingly small. But it is filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian. And old enemies in Alespell may prove to be surprising allies in a conflict no one could have foreseen.
As I mentioned in my review of Scourge of the Betrayer, the comparison with Glen Cook works only so far as the structure of the tale is concerned. Both the Black Company and the Bloodsounder books are military fantasy novels narrated by the person chronicling the deeds of their respective military outfits. That's about it, though. In style, tone, and substance, both series, regardless of a few similarities, are quite disparate.
Sadly, there was virtually no worldbuilding to speak of throughout the first volume. Other than a few brief revelations regarding the Syldoon toward the end, Salyards introduced a number of what seemed to be potentially fascinating concepts and ideas, but he never followed through and elaborated on any of them. This, understandably, was a disappointment. Which was mostly due to the fact that the story is told from the first person narrative of Arkamondos, a cowardly scribe who has seldom been out and about, and who seems to have very little knowledge of the world around him. Nevertheless, I thought that Salyards kept his cards way too close to his chest in that regard, which took a lot away from the overall storytelling aspect of the book. And yet, there were a few very interesting concepts that were unveiled in the first volume, and it was good to see the author finally expand on the Deserters, the Godveil, the Memoridons, and the Syldoon themselves in this second installment. Still, as captivating as those revelations were, I wish Salyards would rely less on info-dump conversations to share that information with his readers. Problem is, Arkamondos can be so dense and innocent at times that other characters have no choice but to spoon-feed him all this info in order to relay it to the reader. For that reason, I wish this tale was seen through the eyes of multiple POV protagonists, as Arkamondos' limited perspective fails to convey the full scope of what is taking place.
As an innocent and a nerdy sort of dumbass do-gooder, Arkamondos doesn't have much going for him. The events of Scourge of the Betrayer have shaken him, and he's no longer the outsider he was when he first joined the Syldoon. Yet he is a cowardly scribe, even if desperation occasionally forces him to show some courage. He remains true to himself and his convictions throughout the novel once more, which will create some complications for him and his companions. Because of this, Salyards' main problem remains the same. Indeed, readers might have a hard time identifying with someone like that. It's all part of the premise to have such an innocent protagonist chronicle and narrate what is essentially a dark and violent tale of military fantasy. I get it. I really do. But these books are grimdark offerings for the most part and they are aimed at that particular audience. Imagine if GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire was told solely from Sansa's perspective. Wouldn't work very well, right? Now, keeping in mind that Sansa is more badass than Arkamondos, I'm sure you understand how having the first person narrative of a clumsy coward as the only POV in this series can be a problem. Especially given the fact that these books feature a number of endearing and intriguing men and women such as Captain Braylor Killcoin, Hewspear, Mulldoos, Vendurro, Soffjian, and Skeelana. Had there been any POV sections featuring any of them, there is no doubt in my mind that Veil of the Deserters would have been a much better and multilayered read. But Jeff Salyards told me that we're stuck with Arki until the end of this trilogy, so that's that. The next series will consist of a limited number of POV protagonists, however. Looking forward to that. . .
The rhythm can be an issue at times. This second volume is not a slow-moving affair, but nor is it a page-turning adventure either. It starts strong and then becomes a bit of a travelogue as the Syldoon are forced to leave Alespell in a hurry. The pace slows down quite a bit as they embark on a side quest before traveling to Sunwrack, where they have been recalled. Veil of the Deserters features a lot more action-packed choreographed battle scenes à la R. A. Salvatore than its predecessor. Sometimes these felt unnecessary and I thought that they got in the way of the storytelling. As was the case in the first installment, I felt that the ending was a bit rushed. But it does set the stage for the finale.
Reading Veil of the Deserters made me realize that it appeared to be the missing part of Scourge of the Betrayer. As a matter of fact, if you take away some extraneous stuff and a few battle scenes here and there, every plotline could have been combined to form a single novel that would have been stronger on every level. Splitting the tale into three books so that it could be a trilogy made for a weaker first volume, methinks, one that may not succeed in enticing readers to give the second one a shot. Which is a shame, as Salyards upped his game and Veil of the Deserters shows even more promise. Time will tell if the final volume will live up to that potential.
Fans of Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie, Jeff Salyards' Bloodsounder's Arc series might be for you!