The streets run red with blood when a man known only as The Sellsword comes to the dying mining city of Aldreth. The advanced infirmity of the plague-ridden nominal ruler, Duke Owain, has opened the door for two rival wizards to vie for control of the city. The sorcerer Varlak has run things on the Duke’s behalf for years, but his rival and former apprentice, Anaias the Whisperer, grew tired of playing second fiddle and with the allegiance of the town’s guardsmen has moved to oust Varlak from his seat of power. With the city racked by turmoil and the mine’s output dwindling, the Usurper sends his best man to Aldreth to sort things out and set things to right once more.
What follows is the literary equivalent of a Charles Bronson movie. The Sellsword cleaves his way through the city, at first playing the two wizards against each other and maneuvering them into open confrontation, then taking sword in hand and slaughtering his way through the survivors. The city of Aldreth, called “Alldeath” by its long suffering citizens, has the feral and dirty feel of a 1970s New York City with dust and garbage set against the backdrop of the rotting bones of the mining and smelting industry. The two factions become largely indistinguishable as the two wizards soon recognize the Sellsword as the greater threat to their plans and send wave after wave of thugs at him, including a few more fleshed-out hirelings complete with names and personalities of their own.
Note: This review is spoiler free. The comments will not be. Read accordingly.
Along the way, the Sellsword learns of yet a third faction involved in the fight for Alldeath – a cult seeks to use the chaos of the city to cover their goals for summoning an avatar of their black goddess. Although introduced early in the narrative, and making frequent appearances in the action, this subplot seems only weakly connected to the larger story until the very end, when stopping their scheme proves to be the Sellsword’s greatest challenge.
And the cult of the dark goddess isn’t the only odd moment that pays off big later. Alderdice sprinkles Chekov’s guns all through Brutal. A number of not-so-casual mentions that seem out of place at first come back to haunt the Sellsword later, including a night at the bullfights and the sudden reappearance of and a dragon – okay, actually a basilisk, but the way its used here, as a big scaly acid mouthed beast, it’s a dragon. Tomato/tomahto.
Like so many action heroes before him, the Sellsword himself lacks much personality beyond, “protagonist”. He is a man on a mission, driven to restore order to the city. A good man dedicated to fighting evil, The Sellsword provides the reader with everything needed to continue rooting for him even as he butchers countless men on his path to victory. The main character’s lack of depth is more than made up for by the colorful cast of allies he gathers along the way including a salty old barkeep, a flighty Duchess, and a cackling bearded oracle.
All in all, Alderdice presents an unpretentious story that rips along at breakneck pace from start to finish with only a few passing moments to allow the reader to catch his breath. Some of the early drama is drained by the Sellsword’s blatant superhuman ability with a sword, but as the threat levels increase and the Sellsword accrues more and more battle damage, the tension ratchets up one chapter at a time. During the final confrontation the man has been so battered it’s a wonder he can even stand at all.
Brutal bills itself as an “Epic Grimdark Fantasy”, but that’s only half right. With its dragons, dark goddesses, and swords and sorcery in abundance, it checks all the right boxes for a fantasy.
The setting might be grim and dark with its fantasy-industrial backdrop and casual indifference to violent resolution of political squabbles, but the story itself never falls into the bleak nihilism of an Abercrombie or King tale. The Sellsword might be savage, and the justice that he metes out might be harsh, but his every action serves a higher purpose than his mere survival. The survival of a city is at stake here, and the man does everything he can to make the city a better place by ridding it of evil. Like The Shadow, the Sellsword does not murder – he delivers a cold dose of justice to murderers, cutthroats and thieves. In many instances the Sellsword makes tactical blunders specifically because he cannot stand by and allow innocents to be harmed on his behalf. In at least three cases, he hares off to rescue captured innocents even at the risk of destroying his carefully laid plans. Those are not the actions of an uncaring killer who just happens to be fighting worse killers, those are the actions of heroes, and they keep the story from devolving into one of empty revenge porn.
Brutal also barely qualifies as “Epic”. For my money, an epic fantasy needs sweeping vistas, ravening hordes, outnumbered armies of gleaming knights pressing forward against all odds, and mushroom clouds of magic power gone wrong. For the most part, this is simply the tale of one man fighting to save a dying city on the edge of the kingdom. Late in the game, we learn that the dark cult’s aim might spell the doom of the world, but that revelation comes late. The inclusion of a ninth-inning “oh, by the way”, doesn’t alter the fact that most of the story is about a man, a sword, and a dying city.
And that late reveal about the epic nature of the threat repeats itself. Just as with the late-stage reveals mentioned earlier, and with the late reveal about the ultimate threat to Aldeth and the world, the nature of the story shifts considerably once the Sellsword’s true identity is revealed. That last reveal doesn’t occur until the epilog, and it’s a big one. It’s so big that it changed my appraisal of everything that happened throughout the book. It isn’t a “twist” ending per se, and it doesn’t cheat things at all, it just…changes how you see the Sellsword in a fundamental way. Some readers might object to it as a cheap and pointless revelation, some readers might love it as a shocking reveal, but this one wishes that the reveal hadn’t waited so long. Knowing who the Sellsword is earlier would have significantly upped the ante in the second half of the book.
One this is for sure – the revealing epilog provides a fantastic incentive to read the promised second book in the series, Fierce.