Thursday, 20 January 2011

‘Broken Honour’ – Robert Earl (Black Library)

One of the reasons that I started the blog up (what seems like an absolute age ago now...) was to check out new stuff and try and broaden my horizons within the speculative fiction genre. There’s a lot out there that I haven’t read yet and this blog helps bring it to my notice, even if it’s a while before I manage to pick it up. The other reason is that I wanted to specifically define what it is I like about fantasy literature. It’s all very well saying that I like fantasy but when you see how many sub-genres it splits into I figured I could be a lot clearer about the whole thing.

What I’ve discovered is that I’m really into ‘military’ fantasy; the kind of stuff that concentrates on the life and camaraderie of soldiers who would normally only make up the backdrop of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy. I want my reading to take me right into the very heart of warfare in a fantasy landscape; this is where the characters feel most alive and the book gets a jolt of energy from this that I just thrive on.
Books from the Black Library give me a regular dose of this and mostly from the ‘Warhammer 40K’ setting. As a result, I find myself passing over the Black Library’s straight fantasy setting in favour of guaranteed good reads with their sci-fi. When I received a copy of ‘Broken Honour’ I saw an opportunity to redress the balance a little with a book that looked as if it had been written with my love of military fantasy in mind...

In the Old World, the province of Hochland is in chaos as the feral beastmen display cunning never before seen to break the armies of man and ravage the countryside to breaking point. The rallying call to arms goes out and even in times such as these, when the safety of the province is at stake, there are those who will look to turn a profit from the horrors of war.
One such man is mercenary captain Erikson who buys a job lot of prisoners from Hergig prison and sets about turning them into a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. Erikson will have his work cut out with his new company though as his men face the realisation that their new found freedom has come at a price, to fight and die against the horrors boiling out of the Hochland forests. Even if Erikson can introduce a new kind of honour amongst thieves there is every chance that his own side will see his company dead. The Baron of Hergig sees Erikson and his men as expendable and a decorated war hero has his own reasons for wanting rid of the Gentlemen’s Free Company of Hergig...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you’re after some military fantasy involving mercenaries then you should really pick up Glen Cook’s ‘Black Company’ series if you haven’t already. If you have already though, then I’d give some serious thought to checking out ‘Broken Honour’. It may not be in the same league as Cook’s seminal work but does its job very well indeed. The signs are there for more books to follow and I really hope this happens.

‘Broken Honour’ takes its readers and places them right at the heart of things in a way that I haven’t seen for a long time. Whether it’s at the front line of conflict or in the midst of high level discussions in the corridor of power, Earl’s frank approach not only puts you in the midst of things but also makes sure that you want to hang around. Everything feels like it’s pivotal to the plot and this feeling is often borne out in the events that follow. Having said that though, it felt like one of the main plot lines kind of petered out when it really needed a more definite conclusion. If ‘Broken Honour’ is the start of a series, and a certain character resurfaces (frantically trying not to give too much away here...) then I can see the logic of this approach and I’ll quite happily take everything back. In the meantime though, a very interesting strand of the plot fell flat at the end and made light of all the potential that it had accrued in the meantime.

Apart from that, the rest of the plot flies along at a furious rate with the urgency of battle more than matched by the cut and thrust of politics behind the scenes. Whatever part of the story you find yourself in there is plenty to get into with the adventures of a disreputable band of former criminals who end up being a lot more engaging than you would have thought at first.
Captain Erikson is a sold character to hang the plot around as a person who knows full well what war brings but is still capable of making surprising decisions that develop his character and keep things interesting. It’s the actions of the men under his command though that really brings life to the plot with their differing reactions to the prospect of swapping the gallows for possible death on the battlefield. Life isn’t as uncertain as you’d think, for the men of the company, as Earl falls into the trap of signposting the survivors through the level of detail he gives their characters. This detail really lets you get to know each individual character though and I’m hoping for more of the same in the future.

Warhammer books aren’t all about the fighting and ‘Broken Honour’ is no exception with its examination of men under the stress of constant warfare. When the fighting really kicks in though, Earl proves that he is more than capable of mixing it with the Black Library ‘big guns’ with a brutal and visceral treatment of the subject matter that leaves you in no doubt as to the horrors of pitched battle in the Old World. I also liked the way that Earl gives us a wider picture of events and shows us things happening just off the battlefield that are just as terrible...

I guess the jury is still out on ‘Broken Honour’ (in a sense) until I see, one way or the other, what happens to that plotline I mentioned earlier. As a stand alone piece though, the positive far outweighs the negative in a bone crunching and compelling piece of fantasy (look out for it at the end of next month according to Amazon). I’ve got my fingers crossed for more.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten. 


Blitzspear said...

Sounds like the sort of book i like. Dan Abnetts Riders of the Dead is still my all time fave WHF book and i wish BL had developed a series like the GG books from that. Only Gotrex and Felix came close too being a reliable series for me. Great review btw

noothergods said...

I've loved the Black Company series so far. I might have to check this one out as well.

Graeme Flory said...

Cheers Blitzspear :o)

noothergods - If you like the 'Black Company' series then you should give this a go. It's not in the same league but a lot of fun.