This book should be one of the introductory bibles to grimdark. There, I said it.
It's got a wide range of awesome authors writing for a very specific audience. And boy, do they do it well.
What is Blackguards?
Besides fucking awesome? It's an anthology by Ragnarok Publications featuring assassins, mercenaries, and rogues written by some of the best grimdark and dark fantasy authors out there.
Back in 2014 I spotted something from a small publisher I didn't know a whole lot about on a website I'd never looked at before. Ragnarok Publications' Blackguards had gone up on Kickstarter. The Kickstarter had a fun vibe to it -- cheekily written with plenty of content -- so I threw down my hard earned and waited for the paperback to be delivered in the mail. In all honesty, I clean forgot I'd ordered it until I received an email from reception at work and ran downstairs to see what it was.
When I first started reading Blackguards and taking notes for the review (with a memory like a sieve, you've got to take plenty of 'em!), it occurred to me that while some people might love to hear me crapping on about each individual story, others might not. So I've written two reviews: one that's an overall review with a few favourites, etc, picked out, and one where I've just gone berserk.
I give you the long and the short of my review of Blackguards.
The short of it
Blackguards is a thoroughly enjoyable collection grimdark fantasy written by some of the premier authors of grimdark fantasy -- eg. Mark Lawrence, Peter Orullian, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Cat Rambo, John Gwynne, Anthony Ryan -- and a bunch of newer faces. The stories range from the cheeky and funny, to the super dark and vicious, running the full gamut of the grimdark fantasy genre.
There are some absolutely cracking stories in there. Irindai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, The Subtler Art by Cat Rambo, Better to Live Than to Die by John Gwynne, The Secret by Mark Lawrence, A Length of Cherrywood by Peter Orullian, Seeds by Carol Berg... as you can tell, there are a fair few in here I'm a big fan of. There are a few stories that weren't for me, which isn't surprising. I have pretty specific tastes, and a pre-set opinion of what is a grimdark story, so that was bound to happen.
The production as a whole is excellent. Beautiful art, a solid printing, an excellent design from cover to cover, and a well thought out collection of authors to make this really attractive. The Kickstarter itself is a deadset template for how to run an anthology Kickstarter (check it out here if you've got a minute) with engaging posts and a range of fun and enjoyable backer rewards and stretch goals (I especially liked the author pay-bump and will definitely be pilfering that idea in the future).
Overall, Blackguards is an excellent production by a publishing house that is fast becoming one of my favourites in the market. That'll be all I'll say about them for now. If I blow any more smoke up Tim or Joe's arse they're likely to pop.
The long of it
Here we go. These were my thoughts on each short story in the print edition. My apologies to the wonderful Charles Phipps and the others in the ebook extra to Blackguards, but I'll review their work in another post. This was going to turn into a bloody novel otherwise.
Presentation: this anthology is a work of art. It's beautifully thought out and presented. Shawn King and Joe Martin have done an amazing job on this. The exterior art is a great summation of the content, while the individual interior sketches really add to the appeal of each story as you move through. Top marks.
Foreward by Glen Cook: Enjoyable read. Great opinions. Funny. A little sad with the death of his step mother mid-production. It's also refreshing to get a piece from a bloke who sounds like a more intellectually standard person. Sometimes I read pieces by authors and just think, "How the hell do I even compare to that?" To have Glen speak to me like I'm the average Joe provides a really enjoyable entry into this anthology.
Intro by Joe Martin: I want to buy this bloke a pint. A stout. Because it's dark. Really on point with the grimdark sub genre and started with the same first book in those travels, The Hobbit, though with a perspective I've not really seen before. Added a few new authors to my to read list.
Now, into the thick of it. Some of these run a bit more stream of consciousness than structured review, but, hey, I draft these on the bus to and from work. I'm sure you can cut me some slack. I've also tried to avoid spoilers as best I can.
Mainon by Jean Rabe: world's best assassin hired by a rich noble to prevent a seer's vision of him being assassinated prior to his wedding in two days time. Really enjoyable depiction of noble wealth with a pretty solid twist and ending.
Irindai by Bradley P. Beaulieu: story about a messenger, whose package was poisoned and killed the recipient, trying to not land in the shit. She ends up in the mix with the sons of a god and a drug lord you can't say no to all while preparing for a pit fight. Author writes beautifully. I'm definitely a new fan. His world is magnificent and a refreshing change from European medieval or post apocalyptic world's I'm used to reading. The ending has a nice twist and the use of moths to create a collective mind is really cool. Really enjoyable story. I want to find out more about Ceda and this desert realm of gods, godlings, and Magic.
The Subtler Art by Cat Rambo: Rambo writes an excellent short piece based on two not often seen protagonist types -- the married middle aged couple finding stuff to complete over in retirement. Nice end twist with a top of the hat. A dark, feel good story, I guess. Enjoyable story of one upmanship.
Seeds by Carol Berg: this felt like the first true blackguard of Blackguards. The character is cheeky, depraved, addicted, running scared, but like with most good grimdark, there is a ray of hope. Excellent atmosphere around this character driven story. Some comments have me grinning like I do at Lawrence's Prince Jalan. When a drug addicted, on the run Mage finds himself in the slammer, he must help a man escape in order to save his hand from the chopping block.
Nancy's Justice by Kenny Soward: enjoyably told with Jancy, a kind of thief / warrior with a sense of justice to guide her actions. After hearing a bard's tale, she heads off to save a 300 year old child from its kidnapper. Soward writes in a fun-to-read manner that dragged me in by the scruff of the neck and held me there, but I felt the story lacked a solid ending. Don't leave me hanging like that dammit!!!
Professional Integrity by Michael J Sullivan: two thieves are asked to kidnap a girl (by that same girl) to impress a man who doesn't know she exists. Why? Because her dad locks her in a box when that man visits. There are some really enjoyable twists and turns that changes this from a thief story to more of a sleuth story. Great fun, though the ending with the banter of how they worked it out lacks the punch I usually prefer in what I personally read. I'll take a punt and say this is Shawn Speakman's favourite story.
Troll Trouble by Richard Lee Byers: a soldier trying to start a new life outside of killing has an old friend drop by - an old friend in a pickle. I found the initial conversation between the protagonist and his mate
A Better Man by Paul S Kemp: Nix and Egil, in need of adventure, accept a job to protect a wizard while he makes a deal. The details are scarce, and their contact hesitant to reveal anything further, but they're bored as hell and in need of mischief. The banter between these two is the best part of the opening, though the rest provides a slow start. Kind of has that feeling of when I used to read Asterix and Obelisk as a kid, only more sneaky, conniving, bloody, and intriguing. Awesome story twist when you get to it. Didn't see that one coming. Ending is different, more somber. From an editing perspective, there's a few typos in this one.
The First Kill by Django Wexler: Andreas takes his assassin apprentice Beth out to meet the famous Gray Rose, a highly feared and respected spy/intelligence officer/killer. There's a nice relationship between the protagonist and Beth, and the ending has an enjoyable twist to finish you off. Great little story.
Manhunt by Mark Smylie: the night falls, the City Watch hide in fear of their own lives, gangs drag people from their homes and murder them unchecked. One man walks out into the darkness, dreams of grandeur beckoning him to keep the High King's peace. The story is a good bit of roguish fun, with multiple POVs letting you get a whirlwind story. Sometimes, the author dumps a bit of backstory on you that feels a bit too much for a short and could have been cut back or left out. Excellent use of light and darkness in combat. The desperation and confusion of not knowing where the next blade is coming from is really well written. Pretty somber, somewhat drawn out ending after the climax.
Better to Live Than to Die by John Gwynne: a young member of a group of outlaws gets involved in a leadership battle. This is a short brutal piece that sent me straight to the bookstore to add Gwynne's 'Malice' to my ever growing to read stack. The characters and setting are gripping and the battle scenes had my arse firmly attached to the edge of my seat. One of my favourites.
The Secret by Mark Lawrence: a story about Brother Sim, one of the most intriguing secondary characters in the Broken Empire series. Love the little nod to George Orwell - some brothers are more equal than others. Knowing brother Sim, I picked the ending pretty early on, but it made this tale no less enjoyable, written in Lawrence's always brilliant use of prose. A stand out.
Friendship by Laura Resnick: Najdan the assassin is ordered to kill one of the brutal Outlookers, an order with dire consequences. Bit of a slow opening with a sizeable info dump to get you into the authors world and understanding the politics that make the assassination a dangerous one.
The Long Kiss by Clay Sanger: Raddox, a murderer and rapist has fled the war he started to spend the gold his dead mercenary company no longer need. It's a fun and raunchy short story with a vicious little ending that's fairly telegraphed but that last scene is a favourite of mine.
The White Rose Thief by Shawn Speakman: Rosenwyn gets dragged back into a life she thought left behind. A nice slower paced piece where we discover a little more about the protagonist in each scene. Definitely building towards something. His character and writing reminds me a little of Rothfuss' Kvothe in The Name of the Wind with the focus on music - the aim being losing yourself in the beauty of it.
A Length of Cherrywood by Peter Orullian: we're really walking in the shadows with this one. Really dark. A highwayman who kidnaps women and sells them for their wombs deals with his horrible past in the only way he's been taught how. Pretty hard topic to put into a story, I imagine. It has a nice moment in the end where we see a little light through the storm clouds of this tale. For getting me to understand someone who could so easily be seen as evil, I tip my glass to you, mr. Orullian.
A Taste of Agony by Tim Maquitz: straight into the action. Gritty, highly detailed. The detail sometimes slows it for me at times, the flip side being that you're right inside Tim's imagination -- exactly where you want to be. As you can always expect from Tim; it's fast, bloody, and action packed.
What Gods Demand by James A. Moore: an assassin tracks a land manager on behalf of the war gods. Interesting premise with a really enjoyable combat scene. It's brutal and merciless. A nice addition to the anthology. More of a vignette as it's pretty much the assassin owning a couple of hapless bastards with her badassery.
Take You Home by David Dalglish: a young woman on her way through Veldaren when she is kidnapped. She's shocked when her knight in shining armour isn't so shiny. Similar to What Gods Demand in that it feels like more of a vignette from a novel, with the antagonist coming out of nowhere at the end which doesn't deliver the level of punch I would have liked.
Seeking the Shadow by Joeseph R. Lallo: a man enters a tavern (I swear this occurrence was a mandatory element of submitting to this anthology!) and confronts two drunks. He's searching for the Red Shadow. As his story unravels and more is revealed the story gets more intriguing. I'd say it's required to have read his other two books this story sits between to fully grasp what the author is saying.
Sun and Steel by Jon Sprunk: a company of mercenaries is betrayed by their employer. Bit of a predictable and unfulfilling story after the initial defeat. It's written in a way that's easy to read, but this one wasn't really for my tastes.
The Betyar and the Magus by SR Cambridge: really somber, nostalgic opening as our protagonist, a highwayman in post war Hungary, remembers his fallen mentor. Hungry, cold, he sees a carriage approach. The first in months. This is a heart warming story more than a grim one. Yes the setting's rough and dark, but the ending is quite uplifting.
A Kingdom and a Horse by Snorri Kristjansson: I've been waiting for this one. Plenty of good talk about him out there in the Grimdark community. A group of young Vikings go for a pilliage. Short, sharp, fun, enjoyable as a rollicking tale that reminded me of the a Asterix and Obelix comics I read in primary school. Didn't have the darkness I was hoping for but an enjoyable Viking tale nonetheless. I did, however like that Snorri did this without resorting to blood and guts. Made it different.
Thieves at the Gate by James Enge: a take on the story of Odysseus. I liked the opening, hoping this would be a story to remind me of Gemmell's Troy series. However, the ending lost me. It was different, but not for me.
His Kikuta Hands by Lian Hearn: a lot of telling in the opening. A young assassin in a feudal Japanese setting finds his organisation set upon by a perceived weak new ruler of the Three Islands. Much like the last story, this one didn't grab me. The telling of so many stories out side the now meant that this short piece spent too much time telling you about the past, future, and political systems, and not enough about what the protagonist was going through.
The Lord Collector by Anthony Ryan: a grim introduction to our protagonist, Jehrid, leader of and Excise Guard unit (think a kind of investigative military) to kick this story off. Jehrid is tasked by his Tower Lord with working with Brother Sollis of the Sixth Order and two others with finding a passenger from a month-old shipwreck. But Jehrid has another agenda: vengeance. A story told with standard Anthony Ryan style. Enjoyable, violent, somber at times and galloping like a horse at others.
Scream by Anton Strout: an art forgery investigator meets with a new client and embarks on a mission to steal a stolen painting. This was fun, and a really engaging ending to the anthology print edition.
If this doesn't tickle your interest, you're dead inside. Seriously. Go find yourself a spot in the extras cast of The Walking Dead or something.
Get that card out and go buy yourself a copy of Blackguards. Hands down the best anthology I've read to date.
Purchase links: Paperback ($25.95) and Kindle ($9.99).