I'll begin by stating that I'm a huge fan of humor in Fantasy. I devoured Terry Pratchett's entire Discworld series after hearing it compared to Douglas Adams. I enjoyed Nicholas Eames' offerings Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose which to me were an excellent mix of classic fantasy and a more modern and subtle approach to satire.
Allan Batchelder's Blood Steel & Fire is not light reading. His characters inhabit a Grimdark world where his protagonists are generally lesser evils as opposed to true heroes and there is a great deal of graphically violent scenes, yet somehow, through excellent writing which combines Monty Python style humorous dialogue, and some genuinely touching interactions we are able to root the MCs nonetheless.
The book revolves around four major Points of View. Vykers, a notorious swordsman and vicious killer is captured and mutilated by a Queen in order to keep him at bay, only to be saved by a mystical Sorceress at the same Queen's behest to lead a rebellion against an evil Wizard known as The End Of All Things.
Former Gigolo Long Pete, and his band of misfit friends who include a loveable simple bloke, a Giantess, and a powerful Sorcerer, go off in search of coin and adventure only to end up enlisted in a battle against the same enemy. Aoiefe, a former sister of an order of Mages copes with her own desire to bring down The End Of All Things, who she is linked to more closely than any of the other characters in a means we learn of quite early on. Finally, Anders, the self-imposed End Of All Things rallies his own diabolical sympathizers to "End it all".
The central story focuses on Vykers setting out, with the help of Arune, his sorcerer conscience, (think Deadpool, but with the sorcerer literally sharing his brain), and a cast of colourful misfits with various intentions to find a weapon powerful enough to destroy The End Of All Things.
Batchelder's story is relatively standard dark fantasy fare, but what truly separates it from the lot and makes it so endearing and perfectly paced is its blend of serious moments written in stunningly succinct prose, and incredibly humorous narrative and dialogue that's perfect for fans of Pratchett and Eames.
Aoiefe's story is by far the most tragic and serious in tone. She is a sympathetic character with a lot on her plate. Batchelder ensures the reader that little in her POV is played for laughs. While Sections focusing on Long Pete and his crew are often the most dialogue heavy and many times left me in tears of laughter, he manages to bring about shifts in tone which allow for even greater resonance as the characters quickly become humanized and their struggles become real.
Vykers is without a doubt the star of the series. Half terrifying killer, half loveable lout, he's what would have happened to Clay Cooper if the band hadn't split up and he hadn't gone the suburban route. His relationship with Arune his twisted Jiminy Cricket, is both strange and heartwarming and he is every bit the anti-hero to cheer for. Throughout the story, we want nothing more than for Vykers to end The End Of All Things.
I loved this book. I read it at a breakneck pace and found myself resentful when I was pulled away from it to deal with what I like to call "real life". Batchelder is an impressive wordsmith and storyteller who is clearly enthusiastic about his world and that passion shines on each page. It's a long book but it never once overstayed it's welcome and I found myself instantly excited to jump in to book 2. A great read from a rising star of Dark Fantasy.
Review by Michael Gruneir
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