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Blood and Iron

Posted by Dan Smyth On Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I've been thinking about the concept that lies at the crux of this review for quite a while now. I've come across it a couple times in the recent past--the most recent while watching Disney's Frozen--and each time my realization as to why I wasn't enjoying the story as much as I should have been eluded me for quite a while. Hopefully I've learned something about this concept after having seen it in action for the third time.

BLOOD AND IRON is the first in a new fantasy series by Jon Sprunk and feels like a step in the “larger” direction after his Shadow Saga novels. This novel immediately felt bigger to me, as the story being told was about large-scale wars, and nations, and phenomenal cosmic powers (bonus points for the reference on that last one...).

The story begins with Horace--a soldier from the west--in the midst of a storm at sea, and en route to a war with the foreign Akeshians. Instead of war though, he finds his way to solitary capture, enslavement, and then to opulent establishment. This due to the fact that he's a latent sorcerer, and comes into power after coming to this new land.

Also at the forefront of the story is Jirom, an ex-mercenary from far-off Zaral, that is biding his time as a gladiator until he can find his way to freedom. Quickly though he meets Horace and is affected by him in a way that he can barely describe. Their meeting and time together is brief, but after they part he finds himself seeking out this man from the west.

Two women also share some of the page time, although considerably less than Horace and Jirom. Byleth, queen of Akeshia, and Alyra, her hand-maiden and court spy for forces outside of the reigning nobility.

The strengths of the novel are easily the amount of action and overall pacing. These are strengths that Sprunk brought from his previous novels. The dude knows how to write action. The story jumps from one scene to the next and there's always something happening. If I'm being honest, some of the action near the beginning of the book felt a little forced. With Horace getting overly angry and lashing out without thinking about what he was doing. Almost like something was driving him to be angry, and I was hoping that it wasn't just the author needing to throw some more action in. A couple times I was pretty surprised when Horace's captors didn't just off him, as other slaves around him were getting some pretty steep punishments indeed. Still, good action, good pacing.

Something that Sprunk improved on in this book over his previous trilogy was his descriptions. There were very few times when I was reading and wouldn't know where a character was, or who was in a scene. Especially some of the more large-scale descriptions about the countryside through which Horace traveled while getting to his ultimate destination were well-done. They portrayed a good sense of scale for the world in which the characters reside.

World-building was completed on a similar scale, although not in quite as much detail. There is some sense of history and larger battles being fought between forces both external and internal to Akeshia. This aspect could definitely have been better and would have been the perfect fit to Byleth's character, if more time had been spent with her.

One of the weakest aspects of the book was the magic system. Horribly cliched: earth, wind, fire, and air-based magics, with a bit of a void-magic to boot. Even though there is time for Horace to be taught, for him to develop his powers (which is good--I hate it when newbies are never really newbies), the magic falls completely short of being anything approaching interesting. Only very basic ideas about how the magic is controlled are approached, and it felt like anything he could come up with could feasibly be whipped out at a moment's notice. The magic saves Horace's bacon repeatedly with him having no notion of what he's doing or how he's accomplishing it. Quite frustrating.

The crux of the problems with this story falls to a single issue: this story doesn't belong to Horace. It is, in fact, Queen Byleth's. In much the same way that the story in Frozen belongs to Elsa (Think about it--if you've seen it. Whose choices does every significant branch of that story turn on? Elsa's. Also, it's no coincidence that the story is based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen. Aka: not Anna.), the story told in BLOOD AND IRON belongs to Queen Byleth and not Horace.

And yet, Horace is ostensibly the main character, as he gets the most face time in the book. Even the summary on the back of the book focuses on Horace and the changes that he's going to make to Akeshia. The really difficult part is that Byleth gets so little POV time that it's hard to even realize that it's her story until nearly the very end. Even more difficult is the fact that Horace and Jirom don't even feel like secondary characters, because they're not directly influencing anything to do with the main story line. Instead, they end up feeling kind of like cameras, sent to show us what is happening along the way. Horace hangs out with Queen Byleth and we see what she is doing and what is going on in court, and Jirom hangs out with a group of rebels and we see what they are doing in the battle against the ruling nobility. This makes Horace and Jirom boring, even if we do see lots of action and interesting things through their eyes. Alyra was a great secondary character though, with her own motivations and fears, that interacted with the queen's story at a very basic level.

Although I gave this one a fairly low rating overall, I think that things could totally be saved by addressing the single issue of who the story belongs to. There are some really good aspects of this novel and others that show marked improvement over previous books. I mean, come on. If Disney can make a mistake like telling a story from the wrong character's perspective, then I think anyone can. The important part will be the process of learning from the past and doing better next time, and that is something that I think Mr. Sprunk has proven that he can do. Because he's done it with every book he's written. Progress and improvement are hallmarks of the best.

Recommended Age: 16+, profanity and violence
Profanity: Somewhat sparse, but it can got strong a few times
Violence: Crazy violent during the battles and gladiator fights
Sex: Some implied relations, no scenes though



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