Thursday, August 22, 2013


Pulp fantasy, ahoy!

One of the downsides of partaking in a subscription service like Angry Robot's ebook one is that occasionally one winds up with a backlog, if one is, as I do, reading a lot of other stuff as well. Since this has been my Summer of Napoleonic War Fiction, I haven't read as much of the genres and genre mash-ups that are Angry Robot's specialty; I've just harvested my subscription each month and sort of gloated at the volume of most-likely-good stuff I have in store for myself.

It's pretty enjoyable. But then sometimes my feed suddenly contains a sequel, a sequel that makes me curious and I sit down to have a look at it and realize, BOOM!, it's a sequel! And I haven't read the first one yet! But now I really want to!

And that's pretty much what happened with the good old-fashioned pulp fantasy funtimes of The Hammer and the Blade, author Paul S. Kemp's first Egil and Nix adventure. Egil and Nix are old adventuring buddies who already have a long and storied history together as this novel starts; in fact, they've been adventuring together for so long that, as they finish their latest bout of tomb-raiding and realize they don't really need the loot anymore, they decide this is going to be their last raid and they're then going to head back to civilization and invest in a legitimate business. Like, say, a brothel.* Because hey, this is still fantasy, you guys.

Their ambitions get thwarted, of course, because in the course of their last tomb-raiding mission, they were pretty much forced to kill a demon (this is all just in the prologue, so I'm not really spoiling anything) that turns out to be very important to an ancient and powerful and baroquely weird family back in the city. Our duo may think they're too old for this sheet, but the Norristru clan (the Tessier-Ashpools by way of the Groans, basically) would beg to differ. And said clan are more than powerful enough to get their way, so off go Egil and Nix on yet another adventure.

As excuses for a small-scale -- the world and its fate are not at stake, just the lives of our two protagonists -- sword and sorcery tale go, well, I've encountered worse. And I got very quickly involved in rooting for this duo, whose relationship is conducted mostly through very enjoyable and snarky dialogue of that laddish kind in which 95% of the conversation is one giving the other crap for his well-known foibles, in full knowledge that at some point in time said foibles have saved both of their lives.

And foibles they most certainly have. Egil, the Hammer, is a priest -- and possibly the only worshipper, making him, as he observes, the High Priest -- of the Momentary God, very devoted to his once-divine-but-only-for-a-little-while-that-one-time deity, a wielder of wit and two great big war-hammers. Nix, the Blade, is a stealth artist and thief, with a satchel full of "gew-gaws" that sometimes help him charm or pick locks and perform other tasks and sometimes backfire in hilariously inconvenient ways They make a fine and successful team, and both are clever and witty and fun to read about.

If you're looking for equally interesting and well-rounded female characters, though, ehhh. Egil and Nix have no female counterpart, but I've learned not to expect one (unless I'm reading my good friend Jennifer Williams' work, some of which you, too, will be able to read in a few short months when her publisher [hooray!] releases it to much fanfare. Stay tuned!). There are, though, women on the bad guys' side, a mother and two sisters, members of the main baddie's family, who as the females in the clan bear the horrible, nasty brunt of said clan's pact with the devil that Egil and Nix kill in the prolog. They have powers and schemes of their own, but since their brother keeps them in a drugged sleep through most of the novel, they exist merely as victims and occasional sources of bad dreams for Nix, who finds himself torn between the spell of compulsion their brother laid on him and Egil to encourage their cooperation, which gives him great pain and sick feelings whenever he so much as thinks of rebelling, and the equally sorcery-induced urge to help the sleeping beauties on Rakon's cart. The sisters' one act of real agency, though, is a doozy, resulting nothing more and nothing less than a forced empathy, causing Egil and Nix to experience mentally the very physical horrors in store for the sisters if Rakon succeeds.

It's enough.

In addition to all the sorcery and tomb-raiding, there are some smashing set-piece battles, especially the mid-novel attack on the caravan by the demonic, reptilian Vwynn, scaly flying beasts with inch-long talons, sharp nasty pointy teeth and wings, that threaten to overwhelm our troop by sheer numbers. It's a great, exciting scene, finely balanced between chaos and detailed blow-by-blow.

All in all, this is a great bit of brain candy, full of action and humor and blood and shouty men and shiny armor. And occasional fauxnachronistic language ("incant" and "incanting" are often used, and prove to be almost as annoying to this reader as "whilst") but not so much as to be unforgiveable. Pulp fantasy, how I've missed you!

*Said brothel rejoicing in the cheerfully misogynist name of the Slick Tunnel, its cheerful misogyny emphasized for us readers by its constantly being italicized, so the female reader is slapped in the face with it each time the place is named. Did I mention that this book is a bit on the laddish side? Sigh.Still, at least nobody gets raped.


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