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The Hammer and The Blade by Paul S. Kemp

The Hammer and The Blade by Paul S. Kemp
Book Name: The Hammer and The Blade
Author: Paul S. Kemp
Publisher(s): Angry Robot
Formatt: Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: June 26, 2012 (US) July 5, 2012 (UK)

Egil and Nix are a pair of tomb robbers, the former a hulking warrior/priest who wields two huge hammers as weapons, the latter a nimble thief/mage who’s also rather handy with sword and dagger. They share a talent for getting into trouble, as witnessed in the prologue, when we see them doing what they do best. The duo finds what they’re after, but a devil guardian of this particular tomb is killed – the repercussions of which form the basis of the novel.

It would be harsh to say it’s a bad story, because it isn’t, it’s just that there are no surprises along the way. For example, the first chapter reveals the villain immediately, as well as his vile scheme. The reader is given almost every detail of what this vile man plans, as well as a fully-rounded character background. There’s nothing subtle about it, bordering on being an infodump, as if the author feels the need to get it out of the way so he can continue with his story. Frankly, it’s a clumsy chapter that almost had me putting the novel down.

Then something wonderful happens. Egil and Nix are back on home turf in the city of Dur Follin, where they have purchased ownership of a bar and brothel they frequent in the less salubrious part of town. It’s here where the book shines – the banter between the two of them is first-rate, amusing and poignant in turn, and the reader is treated to an insight into Nix’s past that firmly fleshes out the character. There’s excellent interaction with other characters, in particular some ready wit when they are outnumbered by a gang of ruffians.

Yet, this proves short-lived, as the villain captures our heroes and they are forced to aid him on his quest. It’s a real shame this happens, as Egil and Nix are characters that really belong in an urban environment. Comparisons with books such as Giant Thief and Among Thieves are fair – our duo are a good team, smart and witty, but removing them from their comfort zone reduces them to simply being taken along for the ride, and being unable to do anything about it.

This journey takes our unwilling heroes through the Wastes, a blighted land reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic landscape; another shame, as this is something that has been done before, and to better effect. On the plus side, the duo’s interaction with other characters is very good – uneasy alliances are formed, giving Egil and Nix the opportunity to suspect what the villain is up to. This is something that could have been a surprise to the reader too, an unsuspected twist, but as it’s been pointed out to us in intricate detail in that first chapter, it falls flat.

The plot is fast-paced, but there’s nothing subtle and we’re taken from A to B to C, all the way to Z at the end. In doing so, it reads almost like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure – no surprise, as Paul S Kemp is the author of several Forgotten Realms novels – the sort of book I would have enjoyed reading twenty years ago, at the height of my role-playing days. Now, though, it feels very much like a missed opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book. If it was a film, you’d cheer the heroes and hiss at the villains; it evokes the classic tales of swords and sorcery, pitting our duo against an evil wizard and vile creatures, dropping just the right amount of magic items in their path for them to use later. There’s great imagery and description in some parts – the spellworm is particularly nasty – and it’s clear from his luscious prose that the author loves Dur Follin and its denizens.

That, for me, is the problem with The Hammer and The Blade. It feels like the wrong story has been told, that Egil and Nix could have battled the wizard and demons in the streets of their city, in darkened alleys or sewers, or the houses of rich nobles. It’s a purely personal opinion, of course – I’ve always preferred the urban role-playing adventures – but being fishes out of water renders Egil and Nix somewhat ineffective, making them as much bystanders as the lesser characters. Still, good writing ensures that when our heroes are themselves once more, they shine, they’ve grown and moved forward, ready for the final confrontation.

Paul S. Kemp cites Lieber, Howard, Brackett and Moorcock in his acknowledgements, and as a tribute to these authors, the book works very well. Decades ago it would have broken new ground, but now it merely seems to retread it. The Hammer and The Blade is a book that has split me right down the middle; while I haven’t enjoyed the plot, it’s been a delight to spend time with Egil and Nix – a pair who, providing they have the right adventures ahead, surely have the potential to rank as one of fantasy’s most dynamic duos. I’m wary, but I’m genuinely looking forward to meeting them again.


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