Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards was one of 2012’s most pleasant surprises in the fantasy field. The novel put a surprising twist on the burgeoning grimdark sub-genre by using an unexpected narrator, the inexperienced, bookish, somewhat timid scribe (Arkamondos) to recount the violent and blood-soaked adventures of a band of foul-mouthed Syldoon soldiers.
What happens when a young man, whose main experience in life consists of transcribing letters and maintaining ledgers for merchants, suddenly finds himself as the embedded reporter for a group of battle-hardened fighters who appear to be bent on causing mayhem in his homeland, for as yet unknown reasons? This is the story Jeff Salyards started in Scourge of the Betrayer (my review) and now, two years later, continues in Veil of the Deserters.
My main issue with the first book was that it somehow felt like a middle book in a series. There was a lot of traveling, interspersed with scenes of extreme violence and witty, foul-mouthed banter, but it was almost impossible to grasp the wider plot because, for most of the novel, Arkamondos (or “Arki” as most of the Syldoon call him) just had no idea what was actually going on. He’s simply told to write down what happens and shut up. In the course of these events, he’s often drawn into combat, or at least forced to defend himself in order to stay alive, but still, he really has very little idea of what the Syldoon are up to.
Thankfully, that begins to change in Veil of the Deserters. The novel picks up more or less exactly where Scourge of the Betrayer left off (i.e. with Arki in the dark) but gradually reveals more details about its fantasy universe, particularly the structure of Syldoon society, which ends up being the focus of the book’s second half after the Syldoon unit is recalled to their Empire. As a result, by the end of this volume you’ll feel much more like you’re properly invested in a fantasy series—something that was lacking in the first volume.
With that one major weakness out of the way, I’m happy to report that all of Jeff Salyards’ strengths are back in play here. His prose is still a notch above that of many more experienced authors, and especially the dialogues continue to be wonderful, from the constant ribbing between the soldiers to the acerbic wit of their leader Captain Braylar. (There’s also an analysis of the origins of Sgt. Muldoos’ favorite curse word, which I won’t quote here for reasons of propriety, but my goodness… )
The already well-drawn group of Syldoon soldiers gains even further depth, as does the character of Arki himself. Salyards does a wonderful job humanizing the soldiers. There’s even some genuine friendship and, dare I say it, mutual respect growing. The battle scenes are again top-notch. The world-building continues to gain depth, with some questions answered and, of course, some new questions posted.
All in all, Veil of the Deserters is a great improvement to Scourge of the Betrayer, which was already a very respectable and engaging debut that unfortunately didn’t garner as much attention as it should have, maybe due to the publisher’s problems at the time. If you missed the start of the Bloodsounder’s Arc series in 2012 and you’re in the market for a solid, (grim)dark fantasy series, check these books out.