First things first, big props to the Goodreads reviewer who coined “sandalpunk” to describe this book. The whole punk thing should have probably stopped after cyber and steam (though to be honest, I have also used bio-punk to describe something), but really in this case it works. So that’s that.
Or rather it isn’t, because now I have started a review with a term to describe the book, without telling anyone what the term means. Stupid stupid stupid, come on man do you expect everyone to get on Goodreads, scroll down, and find the review that coined the term? Explain yourself! Ok, sandalpunk is fantasy set in a faux roman or Greek setting (I believe the person who coined it specified Roman, but screw that I am co-opting it and adding Greek so I can count Kearney’s Macht trilogy).
So ok, Ullsaard is a general for Greater Askhor (Rome), a land ruled by a two hundred year old book that laid out the path for the entire empire to take. The long and short of it is this; conquer the whole world under the crown of a single family known as “the blood.” They take over, put up governors to run the lands, build up the infrastructure, and move on to the next one. Ullsaard has his eye on a much larger campaign than his current one, which involves chasing “savages” around a desert type environment. When he is called home he intends to make his case to the king and instead gets caught up in politics of succession. Things go south and the real plot begins; armies go on the march, deals are made, providences are conquered.
I was digging the first half of the book. I liked the faux-Roman feel. Ullsaard was interesting and not a prototypical hero. He was mostly likable, but not always; a hothead and a complete idiot in some areas. His entanglement into the political web should have been completely avoidable but he was so damn sure of himself that he walked right into trouble. In short he felt like a realistic general who learned real fast what the Peter Principle is. The Empire itself was probably the highlight, following a specific path set up by a hero of fairly recent memory, enforced by a mysterious organization. The Brotherhood had a boring name, but was one of the better and more interesting examples of a mysterious organization I have found. They have a hidden side that is only explored a little in this first book; their more visible front provides the backbone of the clerical side of the empire.
So here I am digging the book, noticing that it was a rare exile journey that didn’t involve a small band of travelers as Ullsaard always had an army behind him. Then his son joins up and provides the political smarts he was missing. And suddenly the second half goes, if not quite all bad, certainly in the wrong direction. The big reveal could be seen from ten miles away, Ullsaard’s complete overconfidence gets annoying, and a couple secondary characters storylines were complete filler. Worst of all, everything moves way to fast. Ullsaard is able to take a single large city, next thing we know he is the biggest force around. There was no build up and everything was too easy.
Fairly action packed and kinda stands on its own, but a decent ending sets up the rest of the series. The mystical portions of the world were largely in the background, but obviously a part of the world. The ending made clear that they would be much more prevalent in the next book, which is good news because it means more of The Brotherhood.
Final verdict? Not as good as I hoped it would be, or even thought it would be after the strong beginning. Some may be turned off by the misogynistic culture the empire lives in, and the very violent military life shown on page (such as injured soldiers being killed off after battles so they don’t slow the armies). And as always when a carnivorous service animal is used by an army (large felines as mounts this time), I wonder how the hell they feed them while on the march. But I enjoyed the book more than I disliked it, and since I already have the second one on my shelf I will give it a try in the near future.
My copy of the book was received from the publisher.