Storm and Steel, by Jon Sprunk [The Book of the Black Earth #2]

✎Title: Storm and Steel (The Book of the Black Earth #2)
Author: Jon Sprunk
Publisher: Pyr
Publication date: 2nd June 2015
Rating: ★★★.5

23165011Storm and Steel, by Jon Sprunk, is the second book of the (recently said to become a quartet if I’m recalling Sprunk’s Facebook updates correctly) The Book of the Black Earth trilogy.  Following the complex events of Blood and Iron we find ourselves witness to two simultaneously unfolding storylines. In the city of Erugash, we remain with Horace as he deals with the ramifications of his defiance of the Sun Cult whilst juggling his new position as Byleth’s First Sword—a role for which he feels he is ill-equipped.

Far from the queen’s seat of power, we find ourselves deep in the midst of the slave rebellion incited by Jirom. In addition, we follow Alyra’s struggle as she juggles her recently-awarded freedom and her position with the spy network she is associated with.

Things have grown complicated since Horace washed up on the shores of Akeshia and if he cannot overcome the new trails he faces as both a zoanii and Byleth’s First Sword, he may find himself with the same iron collar of slavery he managed to shirk clamped back about his neck—or worse, the queen may simply grow tired of him and order his execution.

Given her rising temper, Horace wouldn’t put it past her.

Certainly, Byleth has enough to worry about without Horace—always foreign and strange in the midst of her zoanii court—complicating matters by constantly pressing for a peaceful solution to matters where Byleth feels swift retribution would serve just as well, if not better. She simply cannot afford to show weakness as she faces threats from both within and without. And with the slave rebellion gaining speed and power and the zealots of the Sun Cult inciting war against her amongst the kings of the Empire—against whom she stands alone as the only queen—Byleth will stand for nothing short of perfect loyalty from Horace. But whether she can really rely upon him to conduct himself in her name is another matter altogether, when their views differ so very much. Nevertheless, the foreigner continues to fascinate her and she cannot seem to dispel him, rather, she ceaselessly presses him against her enemies and strives to mould both him and his power to her own ends.

However, when it comes to the slaves, they may find that they simply cannot agree. The rebellion leaders will not back down—and why should they? Horace knows too well the life of a slave. With this in mind, Horace bends every which way possible in order to circumvent the constant blocks he receives from the court and to find and contact Jirom, hoping to find him alive and with an ear for peace.

But the rebels have other ideas. There will be no surrender, no solution that does not involve an immediate end to bondage and servitude, with every single slave being set free. Emanon, always inspiring, has sown the seeds of a rebellion that continues to grow with each slave they liberate, stronger with every blow dealt to the queen. As they sweep through the Empire, a tide of vengeance, their goals begin to seem somehow, impossibly within reach. Soon Jirom calls in the paid services of mercenaries and reunites with old comrades, taking the rebellion to a whole new level. Things are escalating quickly and Jirom finds himself swept along by his lover’s side, fighting for the freedom of every slave in the Empire. Jirom was made and remade in battle and he excels at the carnage of their plight. It is a noble cause, but with the news that Horace is alive and has been appointed Byleth’s First Sword, he can’t help but wonder if his friend’s position might aid them—if he hasn’t been broken to the queen’s will entirely, or was never the man he thought he was to begin with. Standing on two sides of a war and with no way of contacting one another, guesses and assumptions will have to suffice.

Alyra knows there is no peaceful solution—she knows Byleth and knows she will not bend, not even for Horace and certainly not for peace. The Akeshian ways are too old and too set; the only way is for them to break. Now free from Byleth’s service, Alyra finds she is uncertain of her position in Erugash, struggling to find a way to cement her new role and her commitments to the network. Having been abandoned by the network she risked everything for—and all for Horace—she tirelessly works to find new angles, new ways of fulfilling her purpose. She has not forgotten her true endgame, buried deep beneath the smaller, more easily attainable goals. Little does she know the chance will present itself in time—and when it does, she will seize it.

In the meantime, she and Horace drift farther apart with each passing day, seemingly standing on two opposing sides of the queen and her demands. The more frustrated they grow with one another, the less likely it seems the rift will ever be mended and they may find themselves standing on opposing sides of the upcoming conflicts.

And with Mulcibar gone, Horace’s surest way of learning to command his rare zoana abilities has vanished. His power does not respond, is erratic without reason, and soon he becomes too afraid to trust himself to wield it at all—something that frightens him, leaving him potentially defenceless in the queen’s court. With few allies at his back, Horace must learn to tread carefully. Yet with his magic so strong and so out of his control, he must find some way to train himself, even if that means ignoring Mulcibar’s warnings of who he should and should not trust.

But with a darker plot at hand, concealed in the shadows and working towards an endgame that might be discovered far too late, those inside the city might be forced to make hard decisions far sooner than they may have liked. Either way, Erugash is becoming a powder keg and the spark is at hand. Blood will stain the city before all is done, slave and zoanii alike.

However, a deeper darkness than anyone could anticipate is moving in the shadows, unseen and subtle, biding its time. Before long, the slave rebellion will be the least of Erugash’s worries. Something far bigger is stirring beneath the city and Horace will yet again find himself thrust into the midst of something too big for him to shoulder. As cryptic messages surface from old texts and ancient scriptures, Horace finds himself pitted against a mystery he can’t even begin to fathom, and little does he know that he’s running out of time to solve it.

A different sort of war might well be brewing.

One of the best things about Sprunk is how diverse his worlds are. Really diverse. And perhaps this is why, even though at points I struggled with Storm and Steel, I persevered to the end (spoiler: I’m glad I did)—because Sprunk does diversity and he does it well. Sprunk has given us Jirom, a black, homosexual ex-mercenary who actively pursues sexual and romantic (that last part is important!) relations with another man. In the quest for diverse sexual relations we can often focus entirely on the former, foregoing the latter entirely. Which is absolutely unacceptable and I’d really rather they not bother, in that case! I want my gay characters to form romantic relationships with people: I want them to receive precisely the same treatment as straight characters.

I was therefore delighted with Jirom’s story arc and his exceptionally realistic and tender relationship with Emanon. It offset the violence of the slave rebellion perfectly. Furthermore, it was refreshing to see men being romantic towards one another, especially with their storyline being one of war and blood and death. Their relationship is not just sex. Jirom and Emanon enjoy one of the most realistic relationships I’ve read in some time in SFF.

There are new POVs introduced in the book and although they were engaging at first, by the end I found they encumbered the pacing and took something from the narratives of the main characters. I found there were pacing issues with parts of the story, much like with Blood and Iron—I wanted a more regular pace and for far more to happen in the first two thirds of the book.

Instead of seeing Horace adjust to the court and Erugash as we did in the first book, a great deal of time is spent with the rebel slaves, especially with the additional POV included here. This fast grew repetitive, with what seemed like a lot of travel and a lot of fighting. Each battle seemed to mirror the last, right up until the end, where all the stakes are raised and the final battle goes down. In itself, however, the different POVs involved in the final battle stages made for disjointed pacing and confusion as to who was doing what and where.

However, I was impressed enough by Sprunk’s handling of Jirom and Emanon’s relationship, and of Horace’s naïve and vulnerable reluctance to accept that maybe he couldn’t solve everything peaceably, to move past the issues and focus on what I found to be the stronger aspects of both books.

Horace is too much an idealist and too optimistic to face reality—and this is a good thing. It’s who Horace is and even when things begin to fall spectacularly to pieces, he tries to believe in solutions and peace and in the goodness of those around him, even when all evidence points to the contrary. He is naïve and blind and hot damn if it’s not good to see an idealistic character for once. Never mind that he’s male. Writers will always get additional kudos for writing male characters who shy away from war and conflict and who falter under the weight of their responsibilities whilst showing vulnerability. Especially when female characters do the absolute opposite.

On the other hand, Alyra is hard and unflinching and sees reality in a stark contrast to Horace’s hopefulness. It works and creates imbalance and tension between them, without simply breaking them apart as a potential couple. Their plot is complex and constantly evolving. The stable relationship belongs to our gay characters and given that they are involved first-hand in the rebellion, this is very powerful.

There is obviously a far deeper, darker plot just lurking beneath the surface. Much of what has been happening to date has been played out on a stage, a prelude, whilst beyond the drawn curtains at the back, something else entirely is beginning. I’m intrigued as to just where Sprunk will take the story from here. The ending was exciting and unexpected, changing the game altogether. There promises to be an entirely new set of stakes in the third book.

All in all, Storm and Steel does suffer a little for the inclusion of additional POVs and for having chosen to tackle the rebellion from so close an angle. But the characters continue to engage and entertain and this easily balances the parts of the book where the pacing and story sagged a little. Sprunk is most certainly weaving a rich tapestry, thick with all the usual trappings of sword and sorcery, whilst switching things up between his characters and themselves, but also the reader and expectations, by unveiling a large twist so close to the end. This twist is set to change everything about the next book. Although I preferred Horace’s introduction to a new land and the politicking of Akeshia to the grit and gore of the rebellion, Storm and Steel delivered an entertaining and intriguing next stage in the wider story of The Book of the Black Earth.

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