Review of Gallows Black by Sam Sykes

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This is a standalone epic fantasy novella from Sykes’ Grave of Empires universe. It’s published by Orbit and is supposed to be 140 pages, but a lot of this turned out to be taken up by advertising, so I’d guess it’s more like 100 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The Freehold city of Last Word in the Scar is about to become the latest flash point in a war between the Imperial forces and the Revolution. Sal the Cacophony is there to attend an execution where Zanze, one of the people on her revenge list, is scheduled to have his head cut off. Sal waits for Zanze’s turn and a clear shot, meanwhile loading her magical gun Cacophony. She is interrupted by an Imperial Mage, who continues to chat while the next victim, the infamous and powerful freemaker Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, is escorted onto the scaffold. All attention is on the woman, and Sal sees Zanze is about to slip away. She starts to head him off, but the mage grabs her, exposing her scars, her tattoos—and the magical gun. He raises the alarm and she shoots him. Chaos ensues. After a brief battle with Imperial Judge Olithria, Sal gets away with Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, who confides that her real name is Liette. Can Sal fulfil her quest to find and kill Zanze? What should she do about Liette?

This is grimdark, heavily atmospheric and action-oriented. It launches with a spray of blood from the execution and moves right on to the destructive effects of Cacophony, a magical, blood-thirsty, black and brass pistol with dragon eyes and a gaping, blood-thirsty maw. Besides that, Liette is working on necromancy. All the heavy-weights in this story are women except for Zanze, presumably the villain, that we only glimpse from a distance. Despite the heavy action orientation, the characters are well developed and interesting, while alluding to a backstory that I expect we might find in other books. This novella ought to suit fans of the grimdark sub-genre well.

On the not so positive side, this basically consists of a lot of explosions connected by brief conversations that reveal the political factions and how they hate each other. In the brief lulls, Sal and Liette manage to build a quick relationship and have sex. The plot is simple, but adequate for something this length. Still, I got exhausted well before the end. I’d rather have learned more about the world and about the people who live there. The magical system is also unexplained, and everyone just seems to have amazing powers that they pit against each other while the common people flee. The end result is that it didn’t hook me, regardless of the early promise.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson

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This short story was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It currently has six recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Kavian is a sorcerer of the Cteri, the people of the dams, making war against the Efficate that wants the water they have captured in their reservoirs. The Efficate have wizards, too, but they are weak in comparison to the weapons of the Cteri. These weapons are abused children called abnarch who have been kept in dark, solitary confinement for their whole lifetimes. Kavain is given the abnarch girl, Irasht, to use as a weapon in the war. Her own abnarch daughter, Heurian, is given to another sorcerer, Fereyd Japur. The two use the girls to destroy the Efficate armies. Heurian dies, but Irasht is saved when the Efficate break off the war. Kavian then revolts against the system, challenging the female warlord Absu to release the imprisoned children.

This is a fully developed story, very personal and written in the present tense. Because it’s about abused children meant to be used as vessels, it’s very emotionally charged for our society that protects children so heavily. Absu is very pragmatic, without any apparent feelings clouding her decisions. However, both Kavian and Japur are plagued with guilt and get attached to their charges. By the end of the story Kavian has taught Irasht to talk and think, and uses her to press the revolt.

This is a very competent work meant to be emotional manipulation. I’m impressed at Dickinson’s skill at putting it together–he hits on a lot of current memes, strong females and disadvantaged men, etc. However, I’m a little hard to manipulate emotionally, so this just comes across as offensive because of the child abuse. There are also some other issues: First with the Cteri, who seem to be hogging all the water in the region and then abusing the children as a means of defending their civilization—there’s no mention that maybe they should just share. Next, I doubt very much that sorcerers who have grown up within this system would wallow in guilt or even question how it works—that’s imposed from our culture. Last, children who have been kept in the dark this way will likely be insane and not loving or trainable in any way. It’s also likely they will be blind.

I’ll give it some extra credit for the quality of the writing. Excellent imagery, character development and world building.

Four stars.

I think this one is a potential nominee.

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