The Black Guard by AJ Smith

Rating 6.0/10
Over-long, waffling, and full of stock fantasy characters.

The city of Ro Canarn burns. The armies of the Red march upon the northern lords. And the children of a dead god are waking from their long slumber...

The Duke of Canarn is dead, executed by the King’s decree. The city lies in chaos, its people starving, sickening, and tyrannized by the ongoing presence of the King’s mercenary army. But still hope remains: the Duke’s children, the Lord Bromvy and Lady Bronwyn, have escaped their father’s fate.

Separated by enemy territory, hunted by the warrior clerics of the One God, Bromvy undertakes to win back the city with the help of the secretive outcasts of the Darkwald forest, the Dokkalfar. The Lady Bronwyn makes for the sanctuary of the Grass Sea and the warriors of Ranen with the mass of the King's forces at her heels. And in the mountainous region of Fjorlan, the High Thain Algenon Teardrop launches his Dragon Fleet against the Red Army.

The first in a new saga called The Long War, The Black Guard is AJ Smith’s debut and is set in a familiar medieval-fantasy world where men and women fight for their gods. The third-person narrative moves between a number of characters, including the exiled twins Bromvy and Bronwyn, a wise-cracking assassin, a young slave boy, and a squire, amongst others. Split into various lands whose populations serve different gods, there are also various orders of clerics, including the mysterious enchantresses, the Seven Sisters.

The key to the action in this novel is the sacking of the city of Ro Canarn by the Red Army, directed by a king under the thrall of one of the Seven Sisters. Bromvy and Bronwyn have been exiled and named as Black Guards, but have escaped, and the Seven Sisters have cast aside their loyalty to the fire god Jaa to instead raise another, more powerful god. In the sacking of the city, the High Thain of Fjorlan’s brother from a country to the north has also been captured, leading to the launch of the Norsemen's Dragon Fleet against the Red Army, as directed by their giant god Rowanoco.

As you can see from this attempt at a description of the story, there are a lot of different groups, gods and characters to keep track of and trying to figure out where they all are and what they’re doing can often be difficult. Although there is a rich array of characters and a few do manage to stand out as having the potential to become of greater interest as the story moves on – a one-eyed axe maiden called Halla being my particular favourite – in general I unfortunately did not find The Black Guard to be that strong, either on the plot or the writing.

It is always difficult to make a new fantasy series stand out by itself, but for me this was a fairly standard plot of different kingdoms sending armies against one another and blaming it all on their gods. I came across all sorts of familiar characters and devices from other fantasy novels, with the fire-god worshiping Seven Sisters ensnaring the king with magic and telling him to make war being a particular dead-ringer for Melisandre in A Song of Ice and Fire. However, instead of being inhuman and terrifying, they come across more like a bunch of hormonal girls from a boarding school.

Bromvy is the key character – a man whose city has been ransacked, his father killed, and his sister forced to flee – but all he does is a lot of heroic teeth-gnashing. After reading the book it becomes clear that he never really has any sort of plan. The city of Ro Canarn doesn’t seem to have any clear allies, so he just hands over the responsibility to his assassin friend and they go to find a race of ‘risen’ men living deep in the forest to fight the Red Army for them. On top of this, we are constantly being told how menacing and cold Bromvy looks – it would be a lot better if we were stopped being told that, and he actually acted like it.

It often just gets a bit silly, with lots of bantering during fights, boasting about shagging women and getting drunk. Nearly every chapter has men squaring off to one another and having another pointless fight. I’ve also never heard of somebody insulting somebody else by calling them a ‘troll cunt’, but you’ll be hearing that a lot, along with variations on ‘pig-fucker’.

Now and again there are passages of interest – I liked the scenes set in the Nordic-style kingdom of Fjorlan and thought they showed a bit more original thinking – but again there wasn’t enough time spent building the characters so I would care about them and what they were doing. I found this book overall a bit simplistic – an army is amassed and sent to Ro Canarn but there is no discussion about the dukes whose lands make up the realm of Ro and what they think about going to war with the rest of the world and I am less than convinced of Bromvy’s ability to take back and rule a city, no matter how menacing he is.

Essentially there’s no flair, which weighs the book down and makes me less than inclined to continue the series. There are plenty of people out there who will love the book – just take a look on Goodreads – but I found this over-long, waffling, and full of stock fantasy characters following well-worn paths.

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9-stars

I'm nearly at the end of this book and have absolutely loved it. Sometimes when reading a novel, one doesn't always want/need complex characters/plot. It's just nice to read breezily through it and enjoy the ride without taxing the brain! Plus the swearing makes me giggle. Haven't heard those insults before!

7.5/10 from 2 reviews

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