Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia
J.R.R. Tolkien. Michael Moorcock. Lloyd Alexander. Brandon Sanderson. Steven Erikson. Terry Brooks. What do all of these authors have in common? Well, all of them wrote about The Black Sword™. Ah, but what, you ask, is The Black Sword™? Well, The Black Sword™ is a double-edged weapon which happens to be jet black and very magical. Generally, it is also a good bit chattier and/or more judgmental than one might expect out of the average inanimate object, and the wielder tends to be some sort of tragic badass type. The sword will also inevitably have a cool-sounding name and chop through lesser weapons like they’re made of wood (or soft cheese, if it’s a particularly powerful example). So yes, Son of the Black Sword is drawing from a loooooong literary tradition, and doesn’t really do anything to deconstruct it. But on the other hand, it’s about a lot more than that, and though The Black Sword™ may be an old, old trope, Larry Correia managed to convince me that there was still some fun to be had with the concept.
The plot is as follows: in a world where demons haunt the seas and the ancient gods have been forgotten, a group of noble houses controls a land by an ironclad law and a rigorous caste system. The Order of Protectors is charged with upholding the law of the land, and the greatest of their number is Ashok Vadal, a man with an inhuman sense of duty and a magic black sword(™) which endows him with all the skill of the previous wielders of the blade and makes him nigh-undefeatable in battle. Ashok has won glory for his Order and for himself, and seems poised to take over as the next commander of the Protectors, but unexpected connections to the “casteless” slaves is revealed in his past, Ashok’s faith in the system he serves is shattered. With the world’s most dangerous man left abruptly outside the system he worked so long and hard to protect, the very foundations of society are shaken.
First off, the world-building is good, and even manages to feel fresh, though a lot of it is Correia taking old tropes and putting a new spin on them. He has warring Great Houses, but (refreshingly) draws cultural inspiration from Southern Asia rather than Western Europe. There haven’t been many epic fantasies set in a quasi-India, but Son of the Black Sword makes me wish for more of them. Likewise, Correia uses monastic-style Orders (even an Inquisition) to hunt down the faithless, but flips the usual paradigm to make these Inquisitors atheists who hunt down the heretical religious types. The supporting cast feels similarly vibrant, as what originally seems like traditional archetypes fly off in unexpected directions. We get The Rival, The Scholarly Girl, and The Roguish Soldier-of-Fortune, but all of them develop in surprising and welcome ways that invigorate the story. In fact, the supporting cast is often so engaging that the protagonist suffers a bit by comparison. Ashok is a solid, serviceable lead, the stern and dutiful paladin type, but I couldn’t help feeling that the book was more fun when Jagdish the Prison Warden was on the page.
The dialogue is clever, the prose adept, and there was enough narrative urgency that I never wanted to stop reading. The pacing, however, is a bit wonky. The book starts with a thrilling battle sequence and quickly develops into a fun premise, but after that, things trail off into a lot of world-building and prep work for the story to come, finishing with a finale that is both too dire to be a simple hook into the rest of the SAGA OF THE FORGOTTEN WARRIOR series but also not weighty enough to feel like the end to an adventure in and of itself. I realize this is just the first book in what may be a long series, but even given that fact, relatively little actually happens. The novel is consistently entertaining, but it feels as though Correia spent 75% of the book setting up the gameboard, leaving little time for the actual game. As an example, imagine if J.K. Rowling had devoted twenty chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter learning he’s a wizard, and then ended the book right as he arrived in Hogwarts. The novel still would have had a good premise and ended on an exciting moment, but it wouldn’t have felt complete. That’s the problem with Son of the Black Sword. It’s a big, fun idea with a likeable cast of characters, but it feels like we just got to the end of the prologue.
Wasn’t Ashok the Intern a character in Dilbert?
Tim, I love your reviews. They are so much fun. I only wish we saw more of them.