About Steel, Fire, and Blood
His awestruck opponents call him The Reaper, an iron-willed man with no memory of his past, a ruthless champion who has risen to the level of death incarnate.
But The Reaper has collected a legion of enemies as he cut a bloody swath through the greatest of heroes and villains. And these dogs have finally had their day, exacting a revenge both cruel and creative.
Wandering lost, horribly disfigured and unable to fight, Vykers stumbles across the bones of a half-buried skeleton that can transform his ruined body in an inconceivable way. But first he must make a devil’s pact with…
A secretive, ghostly sorceress with ambitions of her own. If Vykers wants to wield a sword again, he must surrender to Arune that which he holds most dear. But can he trust this ethereal enchantress to hold up her end of their dangerous bargain?
Vykers has few good choices, and he must make them quickly, for an impossibly talented and savage wizard has arisen to threaten all of humanity…
THE END OF ALL THINGS
Once an autistic boy hardly able to speak, The End has evolved into a supernatural terror bent on extinguishing all life. A fearsome and unequaled tactician, The End is the only person who doesn’t fear “The Reaper.”
To have any hope of defeating this bloodthirsty mage, Vykers must gather the strangest, most dangerous cohort of killers ever assembled. Then he must seek out the only weapon that can defeat this terrible adversary…
THE EPIC BATTLE
Behold the greatest clash of men, monsters, and Fey that the kingdom has ever known. Vykers, at the head of his outnumbered contingent, launches a desperate attack against The End, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
But The End is a creature worthy of his name. He has forged a secret weapon, a wicked and terrible instrument that will break through Vykers’ defenses and exact a devastating toll.
Only one thing is certain, this extraordinary battle will end in a way that no one could have predicted!
Anyone who knows me will tell you how I like my fantasy: black, gritty, and without apology. There’s nothing wrong with bright and optimistic fantasy but I like it when the protagonists are bastards, the villains are monsters, and the world is not going to become a better place once the final blow is struck. It’s a subgenre (“grimdark”) which, despite Game of Thrones‘ (and now House of the Dragon‘s) success, which is best exemplified by indie fantasy artists like Rob J. Hayes, M.L. Spencer, Richard Nell, Michael Baker, and Michael R. Fletcher. Now Allan Batchelder.
I’ve read STEEL, BLOOD, AND FIRE twice and gained a much greater appreciation of the material within. The book opens with Tarmun Vykers, the Reaper, having his hands as well as feet hacked off by the local authorities. He’s kept alive, though, then dumped in the middle of the woods to die for his myriad crimes. He’s saved, though, by the ghost of a long dead mage who makes a pact to keep him alive. Meanwhile, a barbarian warlord called “The End of All Things” has begun a genocidal campaign across the countryside. Vykers thus takes up a job with the people who maimed him (thankfully, he got better) to destroy him but will he prove worse than his opponent?
Allan Batchelder is a master of combining humor with dark and gritty storytelling. He reminds me of Rob Hayes, Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence in this respect. One of the earliest scenes in the book is a young boy being told he’s the Chosen One in order for a mercenary company to impress him and send him off to the war. It’s hilarious as they’re terrible at it but their subject is dumber than a bag of hammers. We also see characters engage in hypocritical actions that constantly reflect the casual prejudices of the world. The “Virgin Queen” is a old bitter crone who hates everyone and everything around her (while also being quite sexually active even at her age) but cultivates a chaste beautiful legend around herself.
I’m a fan of the characters who manage to be distinct and entertaining throughout. The mercenaries are a bumbling band of fools who are, probably, going to get themselves killed but that isn’t something they worry about since they might get paid before it happens. Vykers is also an arrogant blowhard who, despite suffering recent injuries, is eager to get back to doing the very things which got him in trouble in the first place. He’s also stuck with a moralizing ghost in his head which doesn’t want to share his form when he goes whoring about. Arune is wise but frequently exasperated with his barbarian “partner.” I’m also a fan of Aoife as a young nun-like witch is forced from one trauma to another due to the evil afflicting her brother.
The world-building is consistent but minimalist. This book doesn’t waste time with descriptions of ancient histories, Gondor’s relationships with Numenor, and other tidbits. Instead, we meet the queen, we meet her rivals, and we find out about ancient lost cities when they need to be visiting. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because the world maintains some mystery and it has enough character so as not to be a generic setting either. The book has a lot of show, don’t tell, which I appreciated. We get insight into how the people live by having characters talk about it and that works far better than trying to describe the details. It’s a dirty, smelly, sleazy sort of kingdom and that comes across through the characters.
The action in the book is great with the fights being quick, brutal, and unromantic. Vykers is reputed to be a legendary warrior who could kill two hundred men but he’s “only” able to kill about six at a time. There’s a sort of Howardian feel to things that is mixed with an unromantic working class sensibility to the heroes. One of them is a gigolo, for example, and he discusses (at length) how his business works in a Medieval fantasy world. Magic is shown to be useful but not overwhelming, allowing armies and regular warriors to be relevant.
Oddly, though, I would say the biggest influence on Allan Batchelder’s writings is not Howard or Tolkien but the Bard himself. There’s a fantastically large number of Shakespeare references ranging from Ser John Falstaff, the Virgin Queen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and more that you wouldn’t expect from a book about an apocalyptic warlord razing the land in the name of blind vanity. However, Allan’s working class heroes and thieves are very familiar to those if you know what to look for.
In conclusion, this book is just fun and I’m eager to read the rest of the books in the series. The humor, action, and cynical world are all things which made it an enjoyable reading experience. People should definitely check this out as a great example of indie fantasy. It’s also got a complete story with multiple sequels I’m eager to tear into.