Luc is an innocent. He loves his family, spending his days helping his father on the farm and defending his disabled brother. He doesn’t get on well with his step-mother, but he tries to, and he’s not really sure how to deal with pretty girls showing an interest in him. He’s a nice lad.
One failed exam and a string of poor decisions later, Luc winds up the de-facto leader of a band of unsavoury mercenaries. His new companions are thieves, murderers, and rapists. Unable to return to his placid life, Luc has no choice but to fulfil the mercenaries’ contract as best he is able, despite the dangers he faces and the secrets he uncovers. This is not a book with vast and sweeping scope, and that’s quite refreshing. Luc and his band never become fabled heroes or rise too far from their humble beginnings. It’s not about saving the world – it’s a story set in a larger world that continues on regardless. Smaller scopes aren’t used enough in science-fiction and fantasy. Magic and monster make an appearance, but the plot stays within small bounds and attempts to paint a more realistic picture of a medieval-esque society.
Blackwood Marauders also has original and nuanced villain motivations, which I am very happy with. Adversaries who are baldly evil are rather dull, and it’s good to see a devious plot based on economic pressures rather than mindless opposition. It’s not a particularly fleshed-out part of the book though, and I felt that it could have been explored in more depth.
That’s my issue with quite a lot of the book. Despite taking place on a small scale, with more realistic things at stake compared to every other fantasy protagonist, there’s a lot going on here in what is not a massive book. I would have preferred to see some sub-plots cut to give greater focus to others, exploring motivations and settings in more detail. I think that would have resulted in a tighter and more impactful narrative; as it is, it seems as though the author was rushing to put in too many layers of complexity, and it ends up wearing thin in places. Interesting and new ideas lose place to standard fantasy tropes, and that’s a bit disappointing.
The violence is rather brief and muted – that’s not to say that fights don’t happen, it’s just glossed over quite a lot. Combat that should be difficult and bloody ends up dismissed in a few lines. This is a shame, because it robs climactic moments of their impact, and lessens the sense of threat in the world. If someone is going to kill a fabled monster, then it should be presented as difficult; making it seem easy doesn’t increase the heroism, it makes the reader confused as to why people were scared of the monster.
Oddly though, for a book with little violence in, the sex is quite frequent and explicit. Normally, you expect the violence in a book to be described more graphically than the sex, and it’s strange to see it the other way around. If it wasn’t for the sex scenes, I’d call it Young Adult; that’s the general vibe, but the level of specificity about sex makes it hard to place. It’s not a steamy or passion-filled book – rather the opposite – it’s just oddly precise and detailed in this one area.
Mention should be made of the diversity present in Blackwood Marauders. Fantasy still tends to trend towards clean-cut aryan heroes and women as quest objects – this book does not follow that trend. It does fall for several other fantasy clichés, but it definitely doesn’t present a monolithic culture or a world in which women are set-dressing more than characters. Women have agency, appearing as several main characters, and non-white, non-western-equivalent characters are there as more than tokens. It’s a small point, because well-done diversity is subtle, but it’s something handled well by an author determined not to fall into standard pitfall of exactly one kind of effective character.
I liked parts of this. I felt the author was doing some interesting things with interesting ideas. However, those ideas didn’t really get enough of the focus. Standard fantasy and thin coincidence kept popping back in, weakening the overall story. Blackwood Marauders contains the seeds of something original and fresh though, and I’ll definitely take a look at Villoso’s other books.
I received a copy of this book from the author; this has not affected the impartiality of my review.