Title: Seven Blades in Black
Author: Sam Sykes
Series: The Grave of Empires #1
Published: Orbit (April 9, 2019)
Pages: 704 (Paperback)
This is my first Sam Sykes book, but it definitely won’t be the last. The novel has great morally gray characters, a unique magic system, and a tale that keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next. And, if that wasn’t enough there’s also a sword named Jeff.
“No one ever gets the death they want,” I replied. “Just the one they deserve.”
Sal the Cacophany was once a highly respected mage, but now she’s a vagrant traveling through The Scar, a ravaged land between two warring empires. But, she was done with all that bullshit. She went to The Scar with a list of names and a magical gun ready to find her vengeance. But, as our story starts Sal has been captured by the Revolution, and she’s awaiting her execution. So now all she’s got left is her story. And she’s going to make sure it’s a damn good one.
“My story,” she said. “What I tell you, you write down. Down to the fucking letter, you write it. You tell it. You remember it. You let it be known what Sal the Cacophony did before she went cackling to hell and left this dark earth to all you dumb motherfuckers.”
The story this novel is telling is so compelling. I mean, who doesn’t love a good ole fashioned quest for revenge? As it unfolds, as we learn who Sal is, why she’s out for blood, and what that means for the people around her. And, I loved the magic system. It requires mages to give something up when they use their power (like their breath or features – or even their ability to move). The connection between the power and the barter always made a twisted kind of sense. The western fantasy setting also really worked for the story. And, Sal rides a giant bird named Congeniality. (Yeah, you read that right.)
“There are others, but the end result is that most Vagrants showing up where you live will ruin your day. Not me, of course. A girl like me tends to ruin your whole week.”
But regardless of how compelling the plot or fascinating the magic system, the real shining stars of this novel are the characters. Sal the Cacophony is an asshole. But, she’s an asshole you can’t help but root for. She’s dealing with past trauma and PTSD. She doesn’t believe she’s worthy or capable of redemption, and she pushes away everyone who tries to get close. And, she’s not great at thinking about the consequences of her actions before she goes and does something stupid.
Liette is a brilliant Freemaker who’s part mechanical genius and part mad scientist. She loves books. And Sal too, despite her better judgement. I like that Liette calls Sal on her bullshit and serves as a moral compass of sorts. And, though I wouldn’t always say their relationship is the healthiest (did I mention Sal’s an asshole?), you still want them to find a way to make it work.
Rounding out our trio is Cavric Proud an officer of the Revolution who has been raised to believe in the righteousness of the cause he serves. But, after meeting Sal, he learns that maybe the world is a little more nuanced that he thought. The dichotomy between Sal’s fatalistic view of the world and Cavric’s idealism causes some strife. But, it also allows for some really great character development and discussions about what we are willing to do to get what we want. And, the way people can find justification for just about anything.
“Because justice isn’t for the victim, is it? It’s not for the girl crying every night or the boy burying his father. It’s for the killer, it’s for the judge, it’s for the shits like you who want to feel like you’re above it all, like forgiving a killer makes up for not being able to protect his victims.” I spat on the floor. “A man kills and you fawn over him and wonder what went wrong. A man dies and you shrug and step over the corpse.”
This is one of my new favorite fantasy books, and I have no doubt that it will make my Best of 2019 list. You should absolutely pick this up. You won’t regret it.
Trigger Warnings: PTSD, discussion of past trauma, abuse, violence/gore, torture, mass murder, violence against children