This post will discuss the book, but won’t really be a review. I’m going to talk about the author’s previous work, my personal reading preferences, and the conventions of epic fantasy. I hope that some of you will jump in with comments about your opinions of Larry Correia’s books, your love or hate of epic fantasy, and what you prefer in a story.
Son of the Black Sword is set in an Indian-themed fantasy world – there is a caste system (although the top castes enforce an atheist religion, rather than Hinduism) and names used are Indian in origin. The oceans are dominated by humanoid demons which share many attributes with sharks: skin which is smooth in one direction but sharp in the other, the ability to sense blood and vibrations in the water, and a tendency to eat until they vomit, then continue eating. These shark-demons can travel onto land, so only the poorest of the lowest caste live near the ocean. Anything associated with the ocean is unclean: “fish-eater” is a horrible insult and “saltwater” is a curse word.
I don’t want to give away too much about the main character, but I’ll say that he’s the toughest enforcer of a holy order which exists to battle demons, keep the ruling hierarchy in power, and prevent the noble houses from doing too much damage to each other in civil wars. There are hints that his magical sword and other elements of the story, like the demons, may actually have a science-fiction background.
I’ve listened to two series of audiobooks by Larry Correia: Monster Hunter and Grimnoir, and I think he is the master of pacing. There may have been some slow moments in his first book, Monster Hunter International, but the books after that are action-suspense-action-suspense-action-suspense. I would drive to work or a meeting while listening, then sit in the parking lot waiting for a slow part of the story to use as a stopping point. I’d wait, and wait, and wait, finally stopping the book in the middle of a scene and rushing in for my meeting. With one of the Grimnoir books, I made a horrible mistake: I thought I’d listen in bed for a few minutes before going to sleep. The story pulled me in and kept me alert for hours, and I went to work the next day red-eyed and groggy.
While I enjoyed Son of the Black Sword, it didn’t give me quite the same reading experience. I’m still brainstorming possible reasons, and trying to decide if it’s something about the book or something peculiar to me. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Epic fantasy conventions
I read a lot of epic fantasy when I was in middle and high school, but as an adult I’ve preferred science fiction and non-fiction. I haven’t actually attempted any counts, but it seems to me that it’s conventional in epic fantasy to have a larger number of point-of-view characters and side-plots. I’m wondering if this lessens the sense of urgency in the main plot line, leading to a slower feel.
In Son of the Black Sword, there were two characters (a librarian and a disgraced prison guard) who received a large amount of page time, but had little or no impact on the main storyline. It’s possible one or both of them will be a key player in a sequel, but their only purpose here seemed to be fleshing out the fantasy world. (I have to admit that the disgraced prison guard was my favorite character, but I’m not sure there would have been any impact on the plot had he been eliminated.)
The book ended with a “cliffhanger”, where I would have preferred a more wrapped-up ending, saving the end-of-book crisis as an action-packed opening to a sequel. I don’t know if cliffhangers are more common in epic fantasy than in other types of fiction.
Unlikeable main character
Although he shows occasional brief flashes of humanity, we’re told his backstory is that he’s been responsible for massacres and murders of completely innocent people in order to prop up the ruling regime. He blindly follows his orders, even when it’s been demonstrated to him that the people giving the orders are thoroughly corrupt. The story of his childhood and how he became such a person is purposefully placed late in the book, to prevent any early reader sympathy.
This guy is a sharp contrast to the characters in the other books I’ve read by Correia. Most of them aren’t very fond of authority. The characters in the Monster Hunter series are the survivors of B-movie-style monster attacks. Some are ex-military tough guys, but others are accountants, school teachers, strippers, or fry cooks who have taken up guns to go after the werewolves, vampires, zombies, and giant spiders who once came after them. They are easy to identify with.
The Grimnoir series is set in the 1930s-40s, and the main characters are an ex-convict WWI veteran and an Okie teenage girl. There may not be much there for me to identify with, although I can imagine my grandparents in their shoes. They also deal with problems in ways that seem typically American, so maybe they’re easier for me to sympathize with than someone who believes in a rigid, top-down caste structure.
That’s all I’ve been able to come up with so far — let me know your opinion in the comments section. Also let me know if you’ve read Son of the Black Sword or any of Correia’s other work.