My favorite part of Blood and Iron is when Mulcibar tells shipwreck-survivor-turned-slave-turned-super-wizard-turned-Queen’s-Protector Horace, in all sincerity, that Queen Byleth is a strict mistress, but not cruel. Sorry, dude, you’re just wrong. Turning the brother who betrayed you over to your crazy mad scientist to be tortured as part of his experiment might qualify as “strict.” Sashaying down to the torture chamber/secret lab in your tissue-thin designer gown and gloating over said brother during torture is cruel. That’s okay, though, because tall, voluptuous, raven-haired, contralto-voiced Queen Byleth is not one of the main characters of Jon Sprunk’s new book Blood and Iron. She’s a high-fashion plot device, like Kim Kardashian doing a guest stint on Spartacus.
Blood and Iron is Book One of a fantasy series called THE BOOK OF THE BLACK EARTH. There are three main characters. Horace is from a society that seems similar to medieval Europe, a practitioner of a religion that worships a prophet and has started a crusade against the folks to the east – the Akeshian Empire. Jirom is a slave, a gladiator who later gets sold into the Queen’s army. Alyra is the Handmaiden With a Secret. Byleth is the queen of the city-state of Erugash, a magician and fashionista.
Besides fending off the religious-fanatic invaders, Byleth has picked a fight with the Priests of the Sun, because her family were moon-worshippers. Byleth’s whack-job vizier, Astaptah, is working on a secret weapon designed to harness the magical energy of zoana and intensify it. With this weapon, Byleth will be able to… destroy the Temple of the Sun? Fight off the invaders? Something big and dangerous, anyway.
Horace comes from a society with no magic and who doesn’t believe in or understand magic. He develops awesome zoana powers shortly after he’s shipwrecked in the Empire. No explanation is given for why suddenly he is so powerful that people call him “Storm Lord,” or why, unlike the local wizards, he doesn’t bleed from mystical wounds after he’s wielded magic. Jirom becomes part of a rebel cell inside the army, and one of their intelligence sources, an operative placed by another government, is exactly who you would expect it to be by now.
Soon, Horace’s easily-acquired superpowers get him assigned as the Queen’s protector, with kindly old counselor Mulcibar teaching him how to manage zoana. Most zoani or wizards have an affinity for one of the five states of zoana. Horace has access to all five.
This book reminded me of the late-1970s Conan and Cormac mac Art pastiches by Andrew Offutt, only without as much sex. The action sequences, and the magical battles with the zoana, are well done. The Priests of the Sun and the Queen appear to be adversaries for a very Robert E. Howard-esque reason; because the book says so, not because of fundamental philosophical or spiritual differences. As adversaries go, the priests are pretty good ones. The descriptions of certain artifacts, like the flying boat and Astaptah’s infernal machine, are ingenious and vivid. Blood and Iron mostly sets things in place for the upcoming books, with no real resolution to any of the issues that are raised in it.
In a couple of places, I outright cringed at word and world-building choices. The title of the priest rival, Rimesh, is Menarch, one letter away from menarche, the female menstrual cycle. I think that’s a bad pick. The wounds that accumulate while using zoana are called immaculata. If you’re going to go for Latin, why not just call them stigmata? The Empire is a male-dominated society (which is one of Byleth’s problems) and a fairly conventional one, but there is still no reason for Jirom to have to hide his desire for men. The desert culture serves cream with their fruit in the morning. Cream!
That said, even though the story is predictable, it has interesting moments and some great demons and monsters. The magical system is interesting. Lovers of Conan-style fantasy will enjoy this opening.
Book of the Black Earth — (2014- ) Publisher: This action-heavy EPIC FANTASY SERIES OPENER is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus set in a richly-imagined world. It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand. Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.