✎Title: Blood and Iron (Book of the Black Earth #1)
✎Author: Jon Sprunk
✎Publication date: 11th March 2014
I happily received a copy of Jon Sprunk’s latest book, Blood and Iron direct from the publisher—and I ate through it. Despite a relatively slow start and an environment I couldn’t easily envisage, characters I couldn’t quite connect with, and a questionable sense of the wider plot, I soon found myself engrossed in a deep and richly imagined world that was both entirely inclusive and open-minded, and a refreshing change from the usual whitewashed canvas of sword and sorcery.
Fairly often, if I am already on board with a writer—usually if I’ve read one book of a series, or a completed one—I won’t even read the cover copy. This means I end up going into a book “blind”, but it also means that I avoid revealing cover copy and experience the book entirely as a new and unknown story. I think this enhances the experience—it did with Blood and Iron. I’ll admit to still not knowing the cover copy!
In this colourful fantasy with two men with different histories, and two women brimming with agency, Sprunk has crafted something that really pulls the reader in, desperate to know more, eager to see what will happen next. The opening is somewhat slow and it feels as though much of it could have been condensed, but the middle doesn’t sag as middles sometimes do and the end is pacy, exciting and draws the book towards a thrilling end that will leave readers eager to dive into the second book of the trilogy.
Sprunk is a natural storyteller and this talent really shines through in his detailed and engaging prose. I was thrilled to find the inclusion of POC characters—never mind that they have narrative POVs!—and a varied assortment of religion and sexuality. To have a gay POV narrative character, a male, is not just a demonstration of how progressive and obviously determined to write the fantasy of the future, Sprunk is, but also refreshing and reassuring. Sexuality is approached casually, as is the difference of religious belief and ritual: there is the natural comparison and curiosity of the main characters, but it is tempered with experience and the constant reiteration that not everything taught about opposing creeds must be true. The protagonists certainly become more educated as to the wide variety of difference their world has to offer, and this was presented expertly.
Blood and Iron tells the converging stories of four main characters, two male, two female, who find themselves in very close quarters with one another, thanks to the hand of fate. Their meetings, their relationships and experiences of and with one another are thrilling and charged with possibility. When the unexpected happens to Horace, a simple ship’s carpenter, he finds himself both powerful and threatened in a strange land far, far from home. With his homeland crusading against the heathens who refuse to worship the True Church, Horace finds himself deeply mistrusted and suspected of being a spy. When he finds himself suddenly thrust into a game played with intrigue and subtlety, he must learn to become a member of a society he scarcely understands in order to survive. But Horace has never trained in the art of politicking and when a single mistake could mean death, he must keep his wits about him, and adapt quickly to this new part of himself—a part he never knew about before now. A part that makes him a heretic.
It’s easier for Jirom, a slave or a mercenary all his life. All he must do is fight and survive. Yet when he meets Horace, something about him stirs a part of him to life, something deep inside. It’s not attraction—although Jirom’s desires do fall towards the same sex—but something else. Horace intrigues him. Unbeknownst to the dark-skinned slave, banished from his village so many years ago, what he is about to become involved in—all on the word of a charismatic and handsome man—will plunge him deeply into the tides of revolution, rebellion and war. But is it really Jirom’s war at all and why should he fight it? But then, does he really have anything better to do?
Alyra, the slave and queen’s favourite handmaiden, and the beautiful Queen Byleth are stunningly deep and developed characters that add further layers to the story. I enjoy seeing events transpire from the POV of royalty and Byleth was engaging and exciting and with a desperation to her story and narrative that was hopelessly compelling. Alyra enjoys a tightly woven story with surprises and difficult choices ahead. She is complex and will do whatever it takes to achieve her goals—whatever they might be. But in the same boat as Horace, a stranger from another land, she is embroiled deeply in the same game of whispers and intrigue that Horace must play. Their paths could cross and be beneficial to one another—or their agendas might ultimately clash.
Essentially Blood and Iron is a richly constructed and colourful novel with a diverse and intelligent cast. The opening could have been pacier, could have pulled the reader in sooner and might have offered more than the slow trudge towards the main bulk of the action. But all said, Blood and Iron is a fantastic book that shows just how easy it is to stray from the familiar paths now well-trod in fantasy, and venture towards the unusual, the different and the exotic. The diverse cast and real representation of a real and developed world, Sprunk has hit the mark. I am looking forward to the next book, desperate to know what will happen next and where the plot will go. Just as good as his Shadow Saga, Sprunk is, again, a winner.