In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it - from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.
In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire.
When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together. For Fisk and Shoe - two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other - their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky. And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.
©2014 John Hornor Jacobs (P)2014 Orion Publishing Group
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"Great world, competent prose, messy story"
The core concepts of this fantasy western are great, as others have noted. Some of the characters are interesting, too, especially the narrator (though many are flat and hard to keep track of). The writing is competent and effective.
However, the story is structurally all over the place. Many characters are introduced only to be killed, often before we've had a chance to care at all. Many subplots don't relate to much of anything and/or don't resolve by the end of the book. The main plot question itself doesn't resolve in anything like a satisfying way. In that respect, it's more like a literary fiction than a genre fiction--and that's not a compliment, coming from me.
The book also takes hours before the plot actually begins. Up till then, it's just narrative. This thing happens, this next thing happens, then this thing happens, and we're only reading because we're interested in the world and the narrator. Relationships develop and intensify off-camera. Sometimes the narrator imagines what might be happening, which felt uncomfortable to me.
Finally, most of the character arcs either don't resolve at all or end up with the character weaker than they were to begin with. I'm not going to explain because of spoilers, but take my word for it that I was indignant. I felt like exciting concepts had been introduced, made vital to the character, and then simply trashed, both disappointing me and weakening the character.
Personally, I do not recommend this book. However, I know that many readers place higher importance on worldbuilding and prose than the plot and conclusions--in other words, they care more about journey than destination--and those readers would probably find a lot to enjoy here.
"A great find!"
Story - 4.5/5
I stumbled across this in a sale and only gave it a shot for (1) because it is narrated by Steven Pacey and (2) because the only review from Karen made it sound more interesting than the "back cover blurb". I can tell you now, it is a fantastic story, and one that all grim-dark fantasy fans should give a go.
It has a weird mixture of influences; combining the wild west with roman military/politics and a steampunk fantasy where demons are trapped to enhance the power of machinery and weaponry. You may think that this can't work, but it does - mainly through the brilliance of John Hornor Jacob's prose.
He is actually a very clever writer, and builds the world, characters and pace gradually throughout until the huge climax near the end which is also excellent. The gradual building of these elements means that it takes a little while to get into, but you will realise it was worth it when things start to happen later on.
Performance - 5/5
Steven Pacey is one of the reasons for buying this audiobook, so of course I am going to give him 5/5. He is the very best narrator I have come across, and doesn't disappoint in this book. If you liked him in Joe Abercrombie's books, he is just as good in this - consistently flawless in voice acting, setting the scene and describing action. What more could you ask for?
Overall - 4.5/5
"Not your usual run of the mill Elf story!"
Really enjoyed this book. A beautifully written grimdark style novel, with strange mix of wild west, and fantasy. Set in an almost alternative history,one that the author managed to so skillfully blend together that it seemed so right.
It's not hard to see where he got his inspiration from for the races. The Vaettir "elfs" were akin to native americans, and the Rumans with their roman like culture. Only they run around with demonic carbines! Although there are many familiar themes, and races, they have been presented in a whole new style from how we usually see them. Just brilliant. A great story, that took wee while to really kick in, while the author did bit of character building/scene setting, but when it does it goes with a bang.
My only complaint about this novel was that it was over too quick,so really hope the author intends to do a sequel, would love to hear more from Fisk and Shoe, think the world that John Hornor Jacobs has created has a lot of promise.
Narration hey its Steven Pacey its in safe hands :).
Selected off the strength of the narrator, Steven Pacey, who is always fabulous, I took a punt with this one. Not quite as good as my favourite fantasy authors, but definitely a good find and worth the credit.
As far as world building goes, it's a mix of wild west, roman empire, with a dose of demon and elf lore.....but not elves as you'll have experienced previously.
I'm not sure I was satisfied with the plot and the solution for the Stretcher and the demon hand (no more detail for fear of spoilers) -but perhaps it was too subtle for me. Despite this annoyance, it's a good gripping tale, and I will be looking out for the sequel.
Fisk and Shoe are interesting characters, and some good groundwork has been set for future adventures.
Steven Pacey does an excellent job, as always.
"absorbing plot and sublime narration"
not too keen on fantasy but tempted in by my favourite narrator Steven Pacey, book and performance both utterly wonderful
"From about chapter 3, I couldn't stop listening"
Well, I can only agree with the previous reviewers; an absolute gem of a book.
I honestly found it, and bought it, by virtue of the fact that Stephen Pacey was the narrator (can't go wrong there) but once it got going, I was as hooked by the story and the characters as much as by the narrator's performance.
One of my favourite elements of the book is that it is set over a relatively short period of time, maybe 4 to 6 weeks which means the author really focuses in, and doesn't try to cram far too much in there. The story doesn't meander too wide, it's just a riot of twists and turns right in the present.
Fantastic characters, a variety of likeable, admirable, despicable, mysterious, weak, suspicious, doubtable and strong in there, with a few strong females which I always like to see, and crucially, I think John Hornor Jacobs makes you really care about the main two or three.
I think other reviewers captured the gist of the story well, a sort of alternate time in history similar to when North America was being colonised, with some magic and devils thrown in.
Absolutely fantastic, looking forward to the sequel!
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