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Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues edited by J. M. Martin

Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues edited by J. M. Martin
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Book Name: Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues
Author: edited by J. M. Martin; includes stories by John Gwynne, Mark Lawrence, Michael J. Sullivan, Anthony Ryan, Django Wexler, Mark Smylie, and Cat Rambo
Publisher(s): Ragnarok Publications
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy Anthology
Release Date: May 18, 2015 (US) May 5, 2015 (UK)

The overwhelming majority of characters in Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues, edited by J.M. Martin, are not very nice people. These aren’t loveable rascals, playing harmless tricks in the shadows – the very best of them are merely thieves. The rest are assassins, murderers, cutthroats and rapists.

This is not an anthology for the faint of heart. Leave your children at home, for there be monsters in these waters. In Martin’s introduction, he writes of reading The Hobbit as a class assignment when he was eleven-years-old, which led him to Elric, The Black Company, Thieves’ World and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Most of the stories contained in Blackguards are far less gentle than these stories, especially The Hobbit. While most of the characters we meet are antiheroes, there are a handful, such as Jastail J’Vache from Peter Orullian’s “A Length of Cherrywood,” that are just straight-up villains, and in many of these stories the authors don’t shy away from their protagonists’ violent predilections.

Fortunately, this is a tightly-focused anthology, so it’s not hard to tell whether it will appeal to your reading tastes. Do you like Mark Lawrence? Michael J. Sullivan? Anthony Ryan? How about Django Wexler? If so, you’ll enjoy Blackguards. Not only are each of these authors featured, but their stories take place in the worlds that made them famous, providing readers the opportunity to return to Riyria, The Broken Empire and the worlds of Seven Forges, Shadow Campaigns, Raven’s Shadow and Vault of Heaven.

While I’d read all these authors and was familiar with their worlds, it was John Gwynne’s “Better To Live Than To Die” that I enjoyed the most, probably because I wasn’t already familiar with the Banished Lands or the characters. Gwynne, author of The Faithful and the Fallen quartet, recently received a new book deal from Pan Macmillan after earning a Gemmell Award for best debut author for Malice. “Better To Live Than To Die” takes place 10 years before the events of Malice, and tells of Camlin’s early days with the Darkwood Brigands. Those who had already read Malice likely had a better idea of how the story would end (and who would survive), but as a newcomer to Gwynne’s world, the story had a fun, twisting plot with a lot of forward momentum – perfect for a collection such as this.

Mark Lawrence’s “The Secret” featured Brother Sim, the young assassin from Jorg’s brotherhood. One of the joys of anthologies such as these is that they give authors the opportunity to flesh out characters the plots of their novels simply wouldn’t allow time for, and in Lawrence’s hands Sim is a fascinating character. In many ways, he’s a sympathetic one, but Lawrence never shies away from the fact that ultimately, Sim is a murderer. As one of the characters says, “The perfect assassin, the one who can reach anyone, anywhere, needs to know his target intimately, and such knowledge breeds love. So there lies a dilemma. The perfect assassin needs to be able to kill the thing he loves. Or rather, to understand the emotion, but not let it stay his hand.”

Like Lawrence’s “The Secret,” Wexler’s “First Kill” features an assassin from his pre-established universe. Author of The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne, Wexler uses “First Kill” to give readers a glimpse of Andreas and Sothe, the Gray Rose, prior to the events of his novels. Like so many of the stories contained in Blackguards, Wexler blends intrigue with action to a satisfying conclusion.

Mark Smylie was another author introduced to me in the pages of Blackguards, and again, in some ways not being familiar with the world or the characters made the story even more exciting. As Smylie says in the story’s introduction, “Manhunt” takes place in a thief-plagued city from the setting of his debut novel The Barrow. As Otalo Galluessi and his associates chase a resourceful woman through the city – fighting their way through several ambushes along the way – one of the city’s watchmen, Conrad Theorodrum, refuses to hide indoors with the rest of his brethren as murder takes place on the city streets. The end of this story was one of the most intriguing in the collection, and has me interested in reading The Barrow and returning to the world Smylie has created.

While most of the stories are necessarily dark, Martin mixes some lighter stories, including Sullivan’s “Professional Integrity,” which returns us to the world of the Riyria Revelations. As always, the banter between Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn is entertaining, and while I was initially worried that I saw Sullivan’s plot twist just a few pages in, he added a second wrinkle that kept the story moving forward.

Cat Rambo’s “The Subtler Art” may have been the most humorous and clever story in the collection, as a middle-aged assassin and sorcerer argue over whose profession requires the most subtlety.

Ultimately, though, these stories are all of a very similar feel. If you enjoy grimdark, if you enjoy stories of villains and antiheroes surviving by their wits and their subtlety, these stories will not only provide you with hours of enjoyment, but will add to your to-be-read pile.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (6 votes cast)
Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues edited by J. M. Martin, 10.0 out of 10 based on 6 ratings
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3 Comments

  1. Cat Rambo says:

    Thank you for such kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  2. J.M. Martin says:

    Really appreciate the great review, and I’m really chuffed you enjoyed BLACKGUARDS. And, yes, I agree that the bulk of the tales therein best The Hobbit inasmuch as abundant bloodletting and wicked cunning, though there are also several protagonists who do mean well.

    Thanks again, Richard! Drop me a line if you would like to review any other Ragnarok titles (Rob J. Hayes’ The Ties That Bind trilogy may be up your alley).

  3. C.T. Phipps says:

    Amusingly, I came away from this book with largely the opposite impression. With the exception of “A Length of Cherrywood” which was really dissonant with the rest of the book, I thought the anthology was mostly about a lovable collection of rogues. They may be killers but the majority only kill “bad” people while quite a few are active forces for good. It’s just, again, one or two VERY big exceptions.

    Really loved the anthology, though.

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