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The Black Guard by A. J. Smith

The Black Guard by A. J. Smith
Book Name: The Black Guard
Author: A. J. Smith
Publisher(s): Head of Zeus
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy
Release Date: August 1, 2013

The Black Guard has been described as “Martin meets Lovecraft,” and doesn’t disappoint on either count. With bleak personal stories of loss and hardship, wars between rival nations and a plot to resurrect a dead god, the novel is packed with action and intrigue. The book is not without its flaws, there are moments where the writing is a bit of a let-down or the reader is simply told a lot of information instead of having it worked into the narrative, but there are many good points that make up for it.

Beginning with a short prologue where we are introduced to the history of the giants, beings of great size and power that eventually grew to become gods, Smith quickly launches into the main story through the perspectives of multiple characters. Instead of focusing on a small group of protagonists, Smith often dips into whatever character would best tell the next part of the story. This can be jarring at first, but once the reader learns more about the world and major players it becomes easy to follow. The cast of the book covers a broad range from barbarian warrior priests, hunted former nobles, plucky squires and calculating assassins. The variety of characters from different walks of life does a good job of portraying each separate nation in its own light, preventing the reader from labelling one faction the “bad side” and adding a lot of depth to the book by showing some good people from each faction.

Equally there are a group of particularly nasty villains arrayed against them, some are simply cruel and petty adversaries that are nonetheless well crafted to make you hate them, while others are much more sinister. The Seven Sisters make for very interesting antagonists and serve as a formidable and manipulative force throughout the book. Having a strong female cast for villains is a refreshing change in a grimdark novel, and while the reader only sees hints of these characters and their abilities, the air of mystery about them and their plans helps draw the reader into the story.

The plot is where the novel really shines, weaving a web of different storylines together connected to a single overarching goal on the part of the sisters. Drawing on the book’s mythology and playing on the “long war” between giants, Smith offers up a highly complex yet easy to follow narrative that grows more menacing as the reader gains more information and makes links between foreshadowed events. There’s a good mix of intrigue, daring plans, vicious battles and a splash of politics that all work together to make an involving read.

The world of the story is nicely fleshed out too, clearly making use of extensive background work. Smith does a good job of portraying his world to the reader with all the different aspects meshing together and developing a vibrant atmosphere. The various societies feel detailed and believable as well as satisfyingly different from each other. As the narrative progresses the reader moves along the grimy streets of the medieval land of Ro, shivers in the frozen north, and briefly takes a trip to exotic desert lands. These locations are sculpted with care and skill to provide a vivid backdrop for the story. Traces of magic abound in the world, with priests and clerics wielding powers of their gods, and along with humans there are a number of other species such as the risen, the old bloods and even the monstrous krakens to fill out the pages.

A true grimdark novel, The Black Guard liberally deals out suffering and pain, from the sacking of cities, the cries of the wounded and one particularly heart-wrenching scene where a survivor is forced to walk past a mercenary who raped and murdered his wife without being able to act. The main characters are no less immune, suffering hardships and even a surprise death or two to keep things interesting. Not only that, but there are some darkly horrifying moments related to the plot that show Lovecraft’s influence.

While not a perfect read the book presents a lot of reasons to try it out, the writing offers some gems in the banter between characters and the story is very engaging once it gets going. There are elements of mystery as the novel builds to an exciting climax and the ending sets the tone for an even larger conflict in the later books. There’s room for a lot more adventures to come, and I will be grabbing the next in the series, mainly because I can’t wait to see what happens with the sisters’ dark plan.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Stephanie says:

    Despite the info dumping, this sounds like a terrific read. The author’s imagination and the complex plot sound impressive.

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