I've read STEEL, BLOOD, AND FIRE twice and gained a much greater appreciation of the material within. The book opens with Tarmun Vykers, the Reaper, having his hands as well as feet hacked off by the local authorities. He's kept alive, though, then dumped in the middle of the woods to die for his myriad crimes. He's saved, though, by the ghost of a long dead mage who makes a pact to keep him alive. Meanwhile, a barbarian warlord called "The End of All Things" has begun a genocidal campaign across the countryside. Vykers thus takes up a job with the people who maimed him (thankfully, he got better) to destroy him but will he prove worse than his opponent?
Allan Batchelder is a master of combining humor with dark and gritty storytelling. He reminds me of Rob Hayes, Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence in this respect. One of the earliest scenes in the book is a young boy being told he's the Chosen One in order for a mercenary company to impress him and send him off to the war. It's hilarious as they're terrible at it but their subject is dumber than a bag of hammers. We also see characters engage in hypocritical actions that constantly reflect the casual prejudices of the world. The "Virgin Queen" is a old bitter crone who hates everyone and everything around her (while also being quite sexually active even at her age) but cultivates a chaste beautiful legend around herself.
I'm a fan of the characters who manage to be distinct and entertaining throughout. The mercenaries are a bumbling band of fools who are, probably, going to get themselves killed but that isn't something they worry about since they might get paid before it happens. Vykers is also an arrogant blowhard who, despite suffering recent injuries, is eager to get back to doing the very things which got him in trouble in the first place. He's also stuck with a moralizing ghost in his head which doesn't want to share his form when he goes whoring about. Arune is wise but frequently exasperated with his barbarian "partner." I'm also a fan of Aoife as a young nun-like witch is forced from one trauma to another due to the evil afflicting her brother.
The world-building is consistent but minimalist. This book doesn't waste time with descriptions of ancient histories, Gondor's relationships with Numenor, and other tidbits. Instead, we meet the queen, we meet her rivals, and we find out about ancient lost cities when they need to be visiting. This isn't a bad thing, though, because the world maintains some mystery and it has enough character so as not to be a generic setting either. The book has a lot of show, don't tell, which I appreciated. We get insight into how the people live by having characters talk about it and that works far better than trying to describe the details. It's a dirty, smelly, sleazy sort of kingdom and that comes across through the characters.
The action in the book is great with the fights being quick, brutal, and unromantic. Vykers is reputed to be a legendary warrior who could kill two hundred men but he's "only" able to kill about six at a time. There's a sort of Howardian feel to things that is mixed with an unromantic working class sensibility to the heroes. One of them is a gigolo, for example, and he discusses (at length) how his business works in a Medieval fantasy world. Magic is shown to be useful but not overwhelming, allowing armies and regular warriors to be relevant.
In conclusion, this book is just fun and I'm eager to read the rest of the books in the series. The humor, action, and cynical world are all things which made it an enjoyable reading experience. People should definitely check this out as a great example of indie fantasy.