Seven Blades in Black takes place in a world where two nations are initially in a state of uneasy ceasefire. The Imperium of Cathama embraces magic, using it as both means of providing for its citizens and creating living weapons. Its mages are capable of extraordinary feats although they are frequently contemptuous of the ‘Nulls” around them. By contrast, the Glorious Revolution of Fist & Flame detests any form of magic, having broken away from the Imperium after being sent to colonize a new continent. Rejecting magic as anathema, they have turned instead to science and engineering as a way of protecting their borders. The last conflict between the two left the area known as the Scar, where the bulk of the action takes place; a wasteland dotted with ruins and occasional freeholds who owe allegiance to neither side.
The main character Sal, has spent several years in the Scar. No longer part of the Imperium and considered a dangerous vagrant by the Revolution, she makes her way through the world by occasionally taking contracts on other vagrants; all while trying to avoid too much notice from either side. While the novel is interspersed with chapters during Sal’s interrogation, the majority is told from Sal’s first-person perspective as she explains the events that led up to her capture.
Sal is frequently acerbic and seems to take delight in needling people, particularly her captor, often past the point where she should stop. While she does reserve this primarily for foes, or indeed anyone challenging her, sometimes friends can be on the receiving end as well. Still, it often becomes a useful tactic in the numerous fights Sal finds herself part of. Her main weapon though is a mysterious revolver named the Cacophony, which seems to have a degree of sentience and a desire to be used. It’s mentioned a few times that Sal has made a deal with the Cacophony, one that he intends to see that she keeps although the specifics are left for the time being.
As the book progresses it quickly becomes apparent that Sal is a less than reliable narrator, but it is difficult not to feel she’s justified in it. During the Hightower chapters, the point of view changes to that of Sal’s interrogator, Governor-Militant Tretta Stern. Told in the third-person, we don’t get inside her head in quite the same way as Sal so it’s more difficult to empathise with her. Stern is frequently disparaging and callous, with only her desire to find out what may have happened to a soldier under her command evoking much sympathy.
Although to be fair, Sal has her fair share of unsympathetic moments as well. While she is capable of affection and shows great concern when children are endangered, she frequently shows little regard for herself, drowning her past in whisky and doing her best to push the few people that get close to her away. I was left with the notion that while some good does come of Sal’s actions, it’s often incidental to her quest for revenge. It’s obvious that her betrayal wounded her deeply, both physically and mentally. So has the guilt about some of her actions as an Imperial soldier. Parts of her self-recrimination do wear a little after a while but usually, there’s a good one-liner just around the corner to levy it.
There’s plenty of solid world-building such as described above although my favourite aspect was the way the magical system worked. Mages are required to ‘barter’ for power with a supernatural entity referred to as the Lady Merchant the price asked differs depending on the type of magic that particular mage utilises. Those specialising in illusions lose the ability to dream, those who want to shapeshift gradually lose their own features, etc. And when a mage dies, their body is reclaimed by the Lady Merchant, leaving nothing but dust. It’s unique enough to capture the imagination quickly. And, since this is the first book in the Grave of Empires trilogy, I expect the history and magic will both be expanded on, as will some of the secrets kept by the characters.
Seven Blades in Black is a highly entertaining novel, particularly if you like plenty of fantasy action and a good line in snark.
4.5 out of 5 semi-sentient revolvers.