I reviewed both novellas when they were released individually many moons ago. They have just been re-released as a collection with a stupid-sick new cover by Shawn King, so I've merged the reviews below.
Rebellion of the Black Militia
In all my years reading speculative fiction, I haven’t dipped my toes in the flintlock fantasy genre until picking up Richard Nell’s Rebellion of the Black Militia novella. I first became aware of Richard Nell having recently finished the remarkable Kings of Paradise, so I was eager to explore more of his work. This novella utilizes a vastly different setting and playbook than Paradise and I’m happy to report that Nell’s talent for character building, detailed action scenes, and skilled pacing shines brightly throughout the story.
The plot centers around Johann, an apprentice Scribe who has spent the majority of his life in a castle tower reading and researching the history of the realm. He is a (mostly) pious young man, but not familiar with the harsh realities of the surrounding empire. At the onset of the story, Johann is summoned by the knight Lamorak to help him defeat and capture a demon. Johann would then proceed to bind this demon his body, therefore removing it from further threatening the land. Once the pair start their journey, Johann quickly realizes that his knight companion and the realities of the world around him subvert his expectations and world view, and redefines what measures must be taken in order to serve the laws of their king. Soon, the pair become entangled with a rebel militia under the demon’s command, and Johann quickly realizes that his life’s path might not turn out the way he thinks.
Lamorak is a vulgar and battle-hardened knight with decades of war and blood under his belt, and a lot of early enjoyment is extrapolated from the relationship between him and Johann. They both have varied histories and conflicting morals, and their conversations and attitudes helped to breathe life into their characterization while also building upon the history of the surrounding empire. I was impressed at how much world-building information was tactfully delivered, as well as how well-defined Johann and Lamorak felt by the end of the story. Johann’s metamorphosis felt earned, and his decisions and changing viewpoints seemed like a natural reaction to the events he was experiencing. Character progression was one of the strongest parts of this story, and it speaks to Nell’s considerable talent as a writer to have his protagonist come so far in a relatively short novella.
There is some magic in the world, but it was reserved until the final act, and its reservation added tension and gravity to the final battle scenes. The binding of demons, the powers they grant, and the consequences of such actions were a driving force through the end of the story. It was thrilling to watch our heroes battle with cannons and powder-based firearms in a bloody and oft-horrific showdown, with several surprises and twists revealing themselves along the way. At first, the combination of muskets and super-powered demons felt like a strange combination, but Nell’s attention to detail and vivid descriptions of the sights and sounds of the battlefield made it feel natural and earned.
This novella is part of a planned trilogy of novellas that will serve as a prequel series to something much larger that Nell is working on down the road. While this story feels complete, it also opens that door for potentially many more exciting missions and quests in future installments. Rebellion of the Black Militia is an excellent introduction to the world of Johann and Lamorek, and I hope it won’t be the last.
Devils of the 22nd
The second of Richard Nell’s prequel trilogy of novellas, Devil of the 22nd is much darker than its predecessor, Rebellion of the Black Militia. There’s a quiet sense of dread that grew larger and larger as we discover just how truly monstrous these characters are. And yet the disturbing behavior of the protagonists is offset by an understanding of how these men got to where they are, and the ideals that they’re fighting for. There’s no easy solutions here, and this was a reoccurring theme throughout the story that made it a compelling, if uncomfortable read.
The story centers on Kurt, a twenty-year veteran of the Eastern army, who is all but forgotten by their commanding emperor. Kurt’s men are stationed at the edge of the empire, close to the borderlands that are ruled by dangerous ‘savages.’ The surrounding land is barren, they haven’t been paid in over a year, and the soldiers and their families are starving. Kurt has assumed the identity of a dead colonel just to find something for his men to do. Some orders finally come, but it’s not the kind Kurt was expecting, so he decides to lead his men into the land of the savages to find their own fortune. What starts as a straightforward mission quickly evolves into a high-stakes threat, and ends with a thrilling quest that resolves in a surprising fashion.
These men are not heroes. Even though they’re soldiers, they’re referred to as “killers” even more so. They have been involved in capturing and selling slaves, killing unarmed families, and even worse things are inferenced. They’re tough to root for. But we spend almost the entire book inside Kurt’s head, discovering his unpredictable tendencies, his series of “masks” that he wears in different situations, his abilities to prepare and lead in battle, and his cleverness. The man is a sociopath, but is he a victim of circumstance? After twenty years of serving an Empire who cannot afford to pay him or his men, and would likely rather forget they exist? Nell has shown a talent for allowing the reader to sympathize with morally questionable or outright abhorrent characters, as often times they have no other options in order to survive. How would I feel or react if dealt the same cards in life? Would I be so different? I would certainly hope so, but there’s no way to know for sure.
There are several unpredictable turns that kept the story from stagnating in any one area, and the ending was truly surprising – an unforeseen shift in tone and subject matter and it was a welcome change of atmosphere. The battle scenes are all described in vivid detail, and the settings painted clear pictures in my head. Like Nell’s previous novella, this story felt much larger than its 160 pages. I enjoyed this one quite a bit – not as much as Rebellion, even though this was just as competently written; I felt a bit more detached from these characters and wasn’t sure if I wanted any of them to survive. But by the end of the story, I was ready to explore this twisted yet interesting world even further, and I’m very much looking forward to the release of the full series in the years ahead.
Demons, gunpowder, and drunk, pissed-off soldiers doing some drunk, pissed-off things. The cockles of my heart have never been warmer.
Review by Adam Weller
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