I actually finished Scourge of the Betrayer last week, but it's taken me a few days to decide precisely how to approach a review. It's such an oddly structured novel, and one that forgoes so many genre cliches, I wanted to give myself time to separate the novelty of the reading experience from the story itself.
Most fantasy novels begin with a very clear explanation of who the characters are, what the story is about, and where the story is going; the author immediately defines a goal, a destination, or an objective against which to measure progress; and then leads us to the discovery of a monster, a villain, an empire, or a philosophy to be defeated as the ultimate measure of success.
With Scourge of the Betrayer we get none of that. We're introduced to the characters by name, given a few vague hints and clues as to their roles within the world, and then we're off. Much like Arki, the scribe who provides our focal point into the world, we're kept in the dark as to where we're going, why we're going there, and what it is we hope to accomplish. More than that, we're denied any insight into the significance of events, and robbed of the opportunity to play along and estimate where we are on the journey.
It's a dangerously ambitious way to tell a story, and one with as much potential to alienate readers as to engage them. Fortunately, Salyards know just how to pace his clues, creating a sense of drama and anticipation that wouldn't otherwise be found in what is ultimately revealed to be a rather straightforward tale. Instead of driving towards a goal or a destination we, as readers, are driving instead towards an understanding of who Captain Braylar is and what, exactly, his Slydoon are up to.
The fact that Salyards tells such a stark, brutal, realistic tale certainly helps - had this been a lighter or brighter fantasy, the storytelling likely wouldn't have worked so well. Instead, the edginess of the storytelling plays well against the edginess of the characters and their world, actually serving to draw the reader in. Make no mistake, it's a literary tease, and one that's often frustrating, but it somehow all comes together.
Of course, every story must have its end, and every mystery must have it's big reveal. The big reveal here is less of a "WOW!" and more of an "hmm . . . okay" moment, but it's in keeping with the rest of the story. While I was looking for something a bit more grand, something with a bit more significance, I can't really say I was disappointed. The reveal, and the casual way in which it takes place, just seem to fit. Besides, in a story that is so character-driven, it's only fitting that the most significant moments be saved for the characters themselves, not their journey.
My only complaint is that this feels like less of a complete story and more of a first arc in a longer book, the kind of opening instalment that catches your interest but leaves you wanting to reserve judgement until you know more. Having said that, it's an intriguing enough first arc to make me want to read more, and there's no better recommendation I can offer than that.