So, the tricky thing with Hidden Gems is deciding if a book is sufficiently hidden. The gem part isn’t without controversy, either, because some people will probably argue that there are good reasons certain books are hidden. However, since this is my blog, I’m going to steamroller over those hypothetical objections. Subjective judgments of quality I’m more than comfortable with.
However, these two books may not have had sufficient time to be properly buried. Perhaps they are just bubbling under, still waiting to explode. Or they could actually be pretty popular and I just haven’t heard the buzz. It’s not like neither come up at all in discussions and blog posts, like some of my previous picks. And the few times they have come up, there have been a mix of positive and negative views, so there’s a chance I’m wrong (yeah, right).
But anyway, I’m talking about Adrian Selby’s brilliant 2016 debut, Snakewood, and Jeff Salyard’s radar-underflying Scourge of the Betrayer. They have a few things in common, a lot more not in common, and are both amazing.
If you haven’t already left to go pick them up, I guess I’ll say more below about why you should.
First, that cover had me intrigued from the first moment I saw it. Covers do that to me. In fact, I probably knew I’d have to read it right then. Of course, the blurb about a legendary mercenary troop being hunted down did not make me regret my susceptibility to a pretty face.
And then it came out, and seemed to vanish. I saw it around, but heard very little. I’m never very good at getting things right away, and hearing nothing didn’t help keep it in mind. But eventually I did order a copy – might have seen a sale, that usually does it, but I think I was also curious as to why I hadn’t heard anything – and dived right in.
It was everything it promised, and more. Told in epistolary style, from a bunch of different points of view, it tells the quite grim and unforgiving story of Kailen’s Twenty, a mercenary company of drugged-up superheroes (well, not heroes). The drugs are in place of magic in this world, making for a very complex vocabulary of different plant derivatives that have various advantageous or deleterious effects. I’m not a big one for magic systems, but I quite enjoyed the pseudo-scientific aspect of the drugs and the careful way they were deployed.
The epistolary style was a brave decision as well, and made for a complex chronology where things were revealed or hidden depending on how the supposed collator of the different fragments had arranged them. Sometimes you seemed to be going down a side-road, and sometimes the odd detail would slip by, but overall I loved how the different voices came through, and how your perspective – and sympathies – shifted depending on who’s perspective you were reading.
So, it’s not an easy book to read in terms of complexity, and it’s definitely grimdark as well, but I got wrapped up and pulled along by the characters and their plight, all the way to the inevitable conclusion. I think I saw through a few of the twists, but that didn’t bother me, because it’s not about tricks (it’s about mystery).
This one had been on my radar for a while, but it’s hard to find a copy in the UK (if you rely as much on serendipity as I do, at least). I’m so glad I finally got around to it, as I had a feeling it would be my kind of thing, but I didn’t know quite how much it would be.
Like Snakewood it’s a story about mercenaries related in first person, though there things start to diverge. The single narrator in this case is a rather naive young scribe, whose perspective on the exploits of the mysterious captain and his rough-and-ready crew helps introduce things in a slightly gentler way then Snakewood’s take-no-prisoners approach. The story is told more gradually, but you get a similar sense of unfolding mystery as Arki understands more and more about what he’s gotten himself into.
Attention to detail is the great strength of this book, for me. Whether that’s details of the grit and glory of a powerfully evoked medieval world, or the fully fleshed out characters that we get to know as the narrator does (spoiler alert, some die). There’s humour and action and pathos and a somewhat convoluted plot, and the fact you are living and breathing almost every moment of it really works.
And it’s still a relatively short book because the action, though detailed, takes place over a relatively short space of time. This is not Epic Fantasy, this is almost Claustrophobic Fantasy, narrowly focused on a few key events and a few key people (well, one, really). The full scope of the stakes in play are only really hinted at, and I’d imagine further books expand on it a bit. You definitely get a sense that the job the mercenaries are doing in book is part of a much bigger wheel, but also that the captain has a personal agenda that may end up overshadowing it all.
Can’t wait to find out.
While we’re here, I have to mention Priest. I made a rule that Hidden Gems wouldn’t be about self-published books (which are hidden by their very nature, and I’ve done other posts about), but if you liked these two books, you might like that one. Much more overtly fantastical than either, but it shares their almost noirish pragmatism and character focus, and also has a great mystery at its heart. All three books show that you can do unusual and amazing things with fantasy, and I really hope you check them out.