Blood and Iron – The Book of the Black Earth #1 – Jon Sprunk
Set in a richly-imagined world, this action-heavy fantasy epic and series opener is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus.
It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand.
Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.
Jon Sprunk’s previous series, The Shadow Saga, were books I immensely enjoyed and which put Jon Sprunk firmly on my radar. I was extremely excited when I read about his new book, Blood and Iron, coming out, the start of a new series called The Book of the Black Earth. I’d been looking forward to it for quite a while and when I got a review copy in the mail from the lovely people at Pyr, I was ecstatic. After reading it I had to put it aside for a while. I didn’t start writing my review ’till several weeks after I finished the book because I’m torn about this one and I always have difficulty writing reviews about books that pull me both ways.
I am a pretty slow reader, I wanted to start reading right away, so I could finish before my finals started. Sprunk’s writing didn’t disappoint at all and in just a few days I turned the last page. As I was hoping and expecting, Blood and Iron has the same writing quality as the Shadow Saga has. Sprunk writes in a very engaging style that makes the story come to life around you.
In this first book of his new series, Sprunk takes us to another part of the world he created in the Shadow Saga books. Nimea and the events of the Shadow Saga books are mentioned, so we can situate this new story in time and space in comparison with the other books. This setting is very different from what we’re used to in the previous books. The country Horace ends up in after he is shipwrecked is very Middle Eastern or North African, with deserts-like landscapes and scorching temperatures. I like reading books with these kind of settings now and again, it is a welcome change from the Western world building that is very abundant in the Fantasy genre. The worldbuilding on itself was pretty great, I loved to read the descriptions Sprunk wrote about this new part of his world. He has a gift of keeping it simple and vivid at the same time.
Blood and Iron has many noteworthy themes that all add to the story such as slavery, political intrigue, religion, magic, trauma and romance. All of these are not individually overrepresented, but are woven together in a well-balanced and enjoyable whole.
So where did it go wrong for me? It’s hard to put a finger on it. I think most of it was due to the characters. Though some have interesting storylines, I just couldn’t get myself to really be invested in them. Horace is a man with a past that haunts him, who ends up in the hands of slave traders in Akeshia, a foreign empire, after his ship perishes during a storm. But Horace isn’t just any guy, it turns out, during another freakish storm Horace performs an amazing piece of magic that makes the storm abruptly disappear. There are quite a few people who have these magical abilities in the Akeshian Empire, but once again Horace is special. Where the others get immaculata when they use their magical abilities, Horace does not. That and he’s extremely powerful. I’m not quite a fan of the “ordinary guy has super magical powers he didn’t know about and becomes hero”, so maybe that was one of the things that didn’t sit well with me. It could also be Horace’s personality, because I didn’t like him at all. The other two main characters Alyra and Jirom I liked better. Alyra lives in the palace, where Horace eventually also ends up, and works as a handmaiden for the illustrious and mesmerizing Queen Byleth. Alyra is clever, loving and daring and she had an interesting role to play. Jirom is a hardened fighter/gladiator/mercenary, who was also sold as a slave and brought to a training camp for the Queen’s army. Jirom is a wonderful character, who maybe didn’t have a storyline that had a lot of purpose in this book, but I’m sure it will become important in books to come.
Other interesting secondary characters were Lord Mulcibar and Lord Astaptah, the first a wise father figure to the Queen and Horace and the latter a mysterious man who’s pretty hard to fathom. The Queen started out as a cruel, dazzling woman, but the more we got to know her she turned out to be a frustrated girl about to lose her throne and exploiting her beauty. I wasn’t particularly a fan of her character, I would have liked a bit more consistency where she was concerned.
While I like Sprunk’s style and I enjoyed parts of what he tried to do here, I’m not overly impressed. The book just didn’t leave as much a mark on me as I had expected it to. Were my expectations too high? Maybe. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will enjoy this book, but I expected just that little bit more. If you’re in for a quick and enjoyable Sword and Sorcery tale, then I suggest you give it a try because it is after all an enjoyable read.