Chains of the Heretic

Jeff Salyards' debut, Scourge of the Betrayer, did show some potential. But its relatively short length, uneven pace, and lack of worldbuilding precluded that novel from being a truly satisfying read. All in all, it felt as though it was only part of a book, with a somewhat arbitrary ending that did nothing to close the show with any kind of aplomb. Simply put, not a full novel, in and of itself. In the sequel, Veil of the Deserters, the author did not make the same errors twice and the second volume turned out to be a better read, even though there were pacing issues throughout and the first person narrative of the main character once again left a lot to be desired. Still, it resounded with a lot more depth and actually made you eager to find out how it would all come to an end.

Now that Salyards had upped his game and Veil of the Deserters showed a lot of promise, I was curious to see if the final installment, Chains of the Heretic, would live up to that potential. And unfortunately, it appears it just wasn't meant to be. Indeed, though I was really looking forward to the conclusion of this trilogy, the final volume left me underwhelmed. . .

Here's the blurb:

Men are more easily broken than myths.

Emperor Cynead has usurped command of the Memoridons—Tower-controlled memory witches—and consolidated his reign over the Syldoonian Empire. After escaping the capital city of Sunwrack, Captain Braylar Killcoin and his Jackal company evade pursuit across Urglovia, tasked with reaching deposed emperor Thumaar and helping him recapture the throne. Braylar’s sister, Soffjian, rejoins the Jackals and reveals that Commander Darzaak promised her freedom if she agreed to aid them in breaking Cynead’s grip on the other Memoridons and ousting him.

Imperial forces attempt to intercept Braylar’s company before they can reach Thumaar. The Jackals fight through Cynead’s battalions but find themselves trapped along the Godveil. Outmaneuvered and outnumbered, Braylar gambles on some obscure passages that Arki has translated and uses his cursed flail, Bloodsounder, to part the Godveil, leading the Jackals to the other side. There, they encounter the ruins of human civilization, but they also learn that the Deserters who abandoned humanity a millennium ago and created the Veil in their wake are still very much alive. But are they gods? Demons? Monsters?

What Braylar, Soffjian, Arki, and the Jackals discover beyond the Godveil will shake an empire, reshape a map, and irrevocably alter the course of history.

As mentioned in my reviews of both Scourge of the Betrayer and Veil of the Deserters, 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 as far as it goes, I'm afraid. In style, tone, and especially substance, these two series, regardless of a few similarities, are quite different.

There was virtually no worldbuilding to speak of throughout the first volume. A few interesting concepts were unveiled but not explored, so it was good to see the author finally expand on the Deserters, the Godveil, the Memoridons, and the Syldoon themselves in the second installment. And yet, as captivating as those revelations turned out to be, I wish Salyards would have relied less on info-dump conversations to share that information with his readers. Trouble is, poor 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, and I've said this numerous times, I wish this tale was seen through the eyes of multiple POV protagonists, for Arkamondos' limited perspective more often than not fails to convey the full scope of what is taking place. Still, if there is one facet of Chains of the Heretic in which Salyards truly improved, it has to be worldbuilding. Finally, we discover the truth behind the mysterious power of the Memoridons, as well as the link between weapons such as Bloodsounder and the Godveil.

Kudos to the author for making sure that his main protagonist remained true to himself and his convictions for the duration of the series. Jeff Salyards could have taken the path of least resistance and decide to turn things around, but that would have been too much of a stretch. Love him or hate him, Arkamondos is a genuine and three-dimensional character. And therein lies the problem. As an innocent and a nerdy do-gooder, the young archivist doesn't have much going for him. The events of the previous installments have shaken him badly, and he's no longer the outsider he was when he first joined the Syldoon. Yet he remains a cowardly scribe, even if desperation occasionally forces him to show some courage. Because of this, Salyards' main problem remains the same and many a reader may have a hard time identifying with someone like Arkamondos. Understandably, I get 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. But these books are grimdark titles and they are aimed at that particular audience. Given what aficionados of this subgenre are habitually into, having the first person narrative of a clumsy coward as the only POV in this series can be problematic. Especially given the fact that these books feature a number of intriguing men and women such as Captain Braylor Killcoin, Hewspear, Mulldoos, Vendurro, and Soffjian. Had there been any POV sections focusing on any of them, there is no doubt in my mind that the Bloodsounder's Arc trilogy would have been a much better and multilayered read.

As was the case with both Scourge of the Betrayer and Veil of the Deserters, the pace of this third volume can be an issue at times. Chains of the Heretic features a very strong beginning. So much so that at first I believed that this could be one of the fantasy books to read this year. How it all comes crashing down, I'll never know. What started as an annoying complication and what ultimately killed the book for me is the constant bickering between all the characters. In previous volumes, this was never much of a problem and it served as the comic relief to lighten up the mood of a decidedly dark story. But for some unfathomable reason, in Chains of the Heretic Salyards turned it up a few notches and it is to the detriment of the plot. Basically every single page of the novel features unending arguing and bitching between basically every single character, and this gets old really quickly. It got to a point where I had no choice but to skim through most scenes, as you always have to go through another round of insults thrown every which way before you can get to the heart of that particular sequence. There is such a vast word count focusing on all that bickering that you could probably shave off about 20 per cent of the book without losing anything important. And terms such as horsecunt as insults. Seriously? In addition, like its predecessor, à la R. A. Salvatore this one features a lot of action-packed choreographed battle scenes. Once more, many of these felt unnecessary and I thought that they often got in the way of the storytelling. Oh and Arkamondos' awkward sex scene. It was as painful to read as it was useless in the greater scheme of things.

Still, for all of that, I believe that Chains of the Heretic could have been saved had the Deserters' storyline lived up to the expectations generated by the first two volumes. Too little was revealed about who and what they are and why the Godveil was created. The endgame came with a few surprises, which was good. And I liked how the ending was also a brand new beginning. But alas, it was too little, too late. Although the book showed some improvements toward the end, Jeff Salyards had sadly lost me around the halfway point.

This is a major disappointment, as I felt that this series showed a lot of promise. In the end, characterization and some questionable execution prevented this series from achieving its full potential.

The final verdict: 6/10

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