Book Review: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes
I received a review copy from the author. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Best Laid Plans
Publisher: Rob J. Hayes (May 24, 2017)
Length: 372 pages
Grimdark on the high seas! Sweeter words have never been spoken. I’ve always had a taste for maritime fantasy, so when the chance arose to review Where Loyalties Lie, how could I say no? And the fact that it has pirates in it was simply the icing on the cake.
But while I’d never before had the pleasure of reading Rob J. Hayes, I’m familiar enough with his style to know that his pirates would be the real deal—not the watered down, unobjectionably mild sort you usually see catered to general audiences. His protagonist Captain Drake Morass is exemplary of this, being one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty bastards sailing in these fair isles. Needless to say, he’s also not a man who takes too kindly to being hunted. As Drake and his crew stand witness to a pirate town being slaughtered and burned to the ground by naval forces, he realizes that his way of life may be fast coming to an end…unless someone decides to rise up and fight back. Quickly, an idea begins to hatch in his mind. First, he will unite all the pirates. Next, they will form their own little pirate kingdom, where they will be able to govern and defend themselves. And naturally, Drake will be their glorious leader.
However, Drake’s plans are not without their obstacles. For one thing, his reputation as a dastardly pirate precedes him, and getting any of the other captains to sign on to his campaign will be difficult—unless, of course, he can find someone trustworthy to vouch for him. This is where Captain Keelin Stillwater enters the picture. A practical man, Stillwater is not your typical pirate, preferring more civilized resolutions to conflicts over bloody mayhem if at all possible. He is also one hell of a swordsman and holds a certain level of respect among his fellow pirates, so his word would go a long way to legitimizing Drake’s grand scheme. Together, the two of them will also have to come together to face another threat—Tanner Black. As leader of the most feared pirate fleet on the open seas, Black is setting his sights to dethrone Drake Morass even before he can establish his pirate utopia. To complicate matters is also Tanner’s daughter Elaina Black, who has a past with Stillwater. Torn between her feelings for Keelin and her loyalties to her father, she is something of a wild card who will play a significant role in determining the outcome of this epic ocean-faring saga.
Passion, pride, and fierce ambitions come together in this enthralling adventure full of violence and grit. After a slow-burning start, the surprises come at us fast and thick as the plot takes off in the second half, all set against a backdrop of tensions and hostilities. It’s interesting to note that the pirates of this world have their own politics, so with that also comes the mercurial alliances and betrayals, not to mention their own set of rules and piratical codes of conduct. Anything can happen at all, which makes one wonder if Drake Morass might be in way over his head trying to unite this rough bunch of thieves and miscreants, most of whom are only out for themselves.
After all, it’s not easy being a pirate, especially in the world of Hayes’ First Earth. As I mentioned before, Where Loyalties Lie was my first introduction to the author’s distinctive brand of dark fantasy—which I found to be as brutal and visceral as it was reputed to be. If you’ve come for the raging sea battles and bloody ship takeovers, then you’ll be in for a treat. However, be forewarned as well that depictions of murder, torture and rape are frequent, tossed out almost nonchalantly and often described in graphic detail—not in a way that’s intended to be flippant, mind you, but simply because this is the way of this novel’s world. It’s best, therefore, to avoid this one if you don’t think you can stomach these kinds of horrors, for the threat of violence is an everyday reality for the characters, and the story never lets you forget it. This book is grimdark in its purest form, and it is not ashamed to flaunt the fact.
For the genre, the characters are also as you would expect—most of them are capable of doing great evil, with a few who have some admirable qualities. Admittedly, as with a lot of grimdark novels I wish there had been more variety in the personalities, though there were still enough surprises to keep me guessing at their motives and actions. I also didn’t get a good feel for Drake Morass until later in the novel, largely because the slow build-up in the first half, though I’ve also heard that he is a character—albeit a minor one—from Hayes’ The Ties That Bind trilogy and I can’t help but wonder if not having read the previous series might have played into my initial disconnect with him. That said, the good news is that this is merely a minor issue; by the time the story got going, there is no doubt that I became fully engaged with every single one of these characters, especially once all their potential and intentions were revealed.
Bottom line, for fans of grimdark and pirates, Where Loyalties Lie will be like your dream come true, capable of satisfying the most ferocious appetites for gritty, brutal, and violent nautical fantasy. It is a solid first volume, doing a superb job of establishing the series’ colorful characters and themes, and I am looking forward to the next installment.