Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund
I confess that I picked up Blood of an Exile (2019) by Brian Naslund with the expectation that I’d be reading another fantasy about a roguish-yet-likable gritty swordsman and his band of gritty companions battling the odds to save their gritty world. And sure, the world is gritty. But as I often say, it’s not the familiarity of the tropes, but what one does with them. And Naslund executes them quite well even while subverting a few. Even better, he casts the entire story within a more original context that freshens everything, even the grit, nicely.
The country of Almira has a relatively unique way of punishing particular criminals. They tattoo a set of blue bars on their face, give them a low-born assistant known as their “forsaken shield,” and send them out to slay dragons, which are numerous in the land. Nearly all are killed on their first attempt (the shields are put to death when their dragonslayer dies), though a lucky few survive to kill a handful of dragons before succumbing to the perils of their trade. And then there’s the “Flawless Bershad” (real name Silas Bershad), who has become a notorious celebrity by having killed, at the book’s start, sixty-five dragons, much to the dismay of the king who stripped him of his lands, exiled him, and branded him a dragonslayer.
Now though, the king’s youngest daughter Kira has been kidnapped by the emperor of Balaria, an aggressive, much more technological nation and so the king calls Bershad back to ask him to take on a rescue mission. Bershad is more inclined to kill the king than do him any favors, but he can’t say no to the king’s oldest daughter, Ashlyn, who was Bershad’s betrothed back when he was a lord, captain of armies, and a king’s favorite. Besides her worries about her sister, Ashlyn has another motive: her studies into dragons — their habits, their anatomy, and most importantly their role as a keystone species — has led her to fear their extinction and the impact on the land of such a tragedy. A concern Bershad shares, for he loves the creatures nearly as much as Ashlyn does and has long been tortured by his being forced to kill them. Bershad also hopes to learn more about his strange healing ability which has allowed him to survive so many should-have-been-fatal encounters with dragons.
And so Bershad, his forsaken shield of many years, Rowan, and his faithful donkey Alfonso head out on a dangerous journey to sneak into Balaria and steal back the princess. The rest of his group is made up of Vera, the woman-warrior bodyguard (a “widow”) sworn to protect the kidnapped princess; Felgor, a Balarian thief let out of prison and promised a pardon if he can guide them into the royal palace; and an annoying, haughty, and unskilled Almiran lord who acts as the king’s eyes and agent. Meanwhile, Ashlyn tries to hold her country together against internal strife even as her elderly father fails physically, and a young apprentice alchemist named Jolan finds himself accidentally attached to a foreign assassin named Garret, himself on a mysterious mission.
On the surface, of course, we have the classic big, strong, taciturn guy whose gruffness covers a warm heart heading off to rescue a damsel in distress. And yes, some of that does play out. But as noted, Naslund does an excellent job when working with the familiar tropes. Bershad is a wholly engaging character both in himself and in his relationships with Rowan, Vera, Ashlyn, and even his donkey. His angst over his mysterious healing ability and his self-loathing over killing the dragons as well as over an unrevealed (until the end) event in his past go a long way toward making him a more complex than usual protagonist. Ashlyn appears at first to be a relatively weak character, a princess dominated by her powerful father as she pines for her lost and now forbidden love. But she quickly grows in power and agency, and her mix of political strength and natural science is a winning combination (both within the book’s plot and for the reader). Each of the characters adds something to the mix, as for instance how Jolan adds a more youthful, more naïvely innocent voice. The weakest, and probably most caricature-like characters are the king and the annoying lord, but luckily the author himself seems to realize that and exits them off-stage relatively quickly. Otherwise characterization is sharp, the characters themselves intriguing or engaging or both, and the reader is quickly invested in them as individuals and in the relationships that form among them.
The world-building is another strength, particularly the dichotomy between “backward,” non-technological Almira and the more industrial and technologically advanced “clock” kingdom of Balaria. Here again, Naslund offers up a complex view of things. Almira is no primitive close-to-nature utopia. Their infrastructure is near non-existent, making travel arduous. Their poverty rate is high, and their infant mortality rate and overall health horrible. Its inhabitants are superstitious and seem to disdain or at times even fear learning (Ashlyn’s bend toward natural science runs the risk of having her branded a witch). Balaria, meanwhile, thanks to its prodigious use of dragon oil and its focus on technology and learning, has impressive infrastructure, safe cities (in part due to lighting), and a health system that sees the vast majority of infants survive into childhood and adulthood. But the price for this is a ravaging of resources, making for an unsustainable structure and a strict lack of freedom, exemplified by “seals” that limit where people can live as well as their movement. Then again, Balaria has actual trials, while in Almira some lord “just does whatever the fuck he pleases.”
There’s a pretty blunt ecological analogy here with modern-day questions of sustainability, the “sixth extinction,” climate change, etc. Maybe at times a bit too blunt. But the overlay of environmental concern, particularly the way dragons are presented as a keystone species within an interlocking web of life, and the way one change, even a small one, can ripple down the web to disastrous impact, is a relatively original aspect to Blood of an Exile, one that adds a welcome depth and seriousness as well as freshness.
As for the writing itself, Naslund shows a welcome skill in vivid detail, characterization, distinctive voicing, and dialog. There’s also some well-placed humor; I laughed aloud in several places. Plotting has some good twists as well as some predictable moves (one I could see coming from the get-go), and the ending is perhaps a bit rushed/scattered. But overall it’s a good story well told. I never felt its 400-page length and happily finished it in a single sitting. While some aspects are resolved at the end, the story clearly has more to it, and I for one am looking forward to the next installment.
I like the premise of this! “Hey, go slay dragons, that’ll get rid of you nicely…oh crap, you’re actually good at it!” And then it turning out that slaying dragons isn’t the best idea anyway. I might have to check this out, and I probably wouldn’t have before your review. So thanks!
I’m with Kelly. When I saw the cover photo and read the tagline I thought. “Sentenced to die. Impossible to kill. Mad for tattoos,” but I want to read it now. (Actually, when I learned he’d named his donkey I was more than halfway in.)
loved the whole running thing with the donkey
And yes, it took me a while to pick this up but it really was a pleasant surprise (based on nothing but my own jaded cynicism)
Just started this and it looks promising-sticking with it.