Book Review: Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Grave of Empires
Publisher: Orbit (April 9, 2019)
Length: 608 pages
I don’t think I enjoyed this one as most others, but honestly, I believe it had more to do with my mindset going in than anything to do with the book. Seven Blades in Black is rollicking action-packed epic fantasy full of spellbinding magic, tantalizing intrigue, and bloody violent battles—in other words, pretty much everything an avid reader of the genre could ask for. That said, it is also a heavy clunker of a book and there’s a lot going on, resulting in plenty of highs but also many lows when it comes to the story’s pacing and interest.
The main setting of the novel is an area of the world called the Scar, a continent that has been torn apart by a brutal war against the Empire and the Revolution since time immemorial. At the center of it all is our protagonist, a feisty mage by the name of Sal the Cacophony. Sal is known throughout these parts as a quick-witted gunslinger who rides a giant bird, carries a thunderous sentient hand cannon, and wields a sword named Jeff. She’s quick at the draw and sharp as a blade, but she also has plenty of issues including a massive chip on her shoulder and a vendetta against the mages who betrayed her.
At the beginning of the book, we find out that Sal has been captured by the Revolution, robbed of her weapons and magic, and is awaiting execution. Under interrogation, she recounts her story, gradually revealing the sequence of events which led her to begin her journey of vengeance and how it ended with a trail of destruction and death left in her wake.
Sitting at over 600 pages, this is definitely a book that requires a substantial time investment and a fair bit of patience. Others have been able binge this one in a couple of days, but for me it was a struggle to motivate myself to even pick it up on most occasions. But like I said from the outset, this probably had little to do with the book itself and everything to do with me. My goal had been to find a fun fantasy to read for the purposes of unwinding and de-stressing, and when I heard about the swashbuckling action and witty humor in this, I thought it would be perfect. And to be fair, it did provide a fair amount of entertainment and excitement in a general sense, though as I soon found out after I started reading, the story was also a lot more complicated and not as easygoing as I had expected.
For one, the plot itself is fairly complex—gratuitously so, I felt at times. And while the time shifts were somewhat clever, there was also a forced quality to them, like I could feel the author’s hand in pushing the characters and events through to his desired storyline every step of the way. There were also numerous sections in the book that made me question whether they were really needed, like dense paragraphs of tortured melodramatic internal monologue or repetition of certain character or story themes. The thing is, lengthy books don’t typically pose a problem for me; usually when I find a doorstopper of an epic fantasy novel that is skillfully written and keeps me well engaged, I can breeze through them like any other. With this one though, there were certainly moments where I definitely felt the full brunt of its massive page-length and a mental countdown of how many pages I had left to go was on the back of my mind far more frequently than I would have liked.
Sal was also a difficult character to like. By design, she’s a cantankerous, belligerent piece of work. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of other “unlikeable” characters who come across endearing and charming even when they do nothing but act like jerks through the entire book. But something about Sal just rubbed me the wrong way. Her swagger, snark, and devil-may-care attitude seemed really artificial in the way she was written, and her anger and woe-is-me self-pity came across as overly dramatic. It made connecting to her nearly impossible, and once sympathizing with her became difficult, inevitably there also went much of my interest in Sal’s story or resolution of the conflict.
Again, I am very much a mood reader and I imagine I would have enjoyed this one a lot more had I been in the right frame of mind and more lenient towards some of the issues I mentioned. But as it was, I had expected a story line that flowed better and a more engaging conflict and main character. I will say however that the premise of Seven Blades in Black was unique, with a concept behind the main character that was solid and imaginative. The world-building was also phenomenal. For those reasons, I give this book 3 stars despite the weaknesses in the plot and story structure. To its credit, I do think that it managed to pull everything together for a great finale—perhaps not in time to wow me, but it did make me more open-minded to the possibility of checking out the next book (and I’ll know what state of mind to be in if I do)!