WHERE LOYALTIES LIE by Rob Hayes is technically part of the larger First Earth universe and a sequel to the Ties That Bind trilogy. It is, however, an individual work which functions on its own and the first novel in the Best Laid Plans duology. Got all that? Me neither. However, for the sake of this review, this is a great grimdark pirate novel with bloodshed and booty!
The premise is Drake Morass, professional conman and pirate, has decided he's getting along in his years so it's time to think about retirement. Retirement plans for a man who was lovers with the Dragon Empress and who has literally sold his own mother into slavery are a bit more grandiose than for most, though. Drake Morass wishes to be a king and not just a king but one who rules over a nation of pirates in the setting's Carribean equivalent. There's just one problem: everyone who knows Drake Morass knows he's a scheming piece of garbage. A man's word may not mean much among scurvy seadogs but his means less than anyone's.
To this end, Drake Morass recruits gentleman pirate Keelin. Keelin is something of a stereotype even in-universe as he's a former nobleman who went on the high seas to get revenge on his enemies. He's a man of his word and a man who tries to maintain civil standards above being a murderous bandit. In other words, he's the perfect patsy to make it look like Drake is out for anyone other than himself. Keelin is also, notably, lovers with Elaina Black--the world's most famous she-pirate and daughter of Tanner Black. Tanner is the man who actually IS close to being the pirate's king and knows better than to try something as stupid as Drake is planning.
Where Loyalties Lie is clearly inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies but it also draws a great deal from the historical attempt at creating a pirate nation in Nassau. For those unfamiliar with it (or Assassins Creed: Black Flag), that was where the pirates of the age took over the island and attempted to create their own Republic. Unlike the Disney movies, this is a book clearly written for adults with language, sex, and visceral violence. There's also a short rape scene in the book which, while plot relevant, made my stomach turn and is the only reason this book isn't a 5 out of 5.
While I don't think fantasy is overclocked with Medieval European settings, I do like when the genre branches out and pirates are an underdone setting for stories about magic as well as monsters. They should go together like peanut butter and jelly with this novel making excellent use of his fantasy world as well as it's politics to create a dynamic interesting plot. The fact Drake's plan to create his own kingdom is entirely selfish and the book makes no attempt to soften its sociopathic antihero also means I didn't know who would win out. I was as much rooting for the people opposed to Drake Morass as the people he'd duped into following him.
The characters are dynamic, the situations interesting, and the writing crisp. There's never a dull moment in the novel and there's numerous twists I didn'texpect. Also, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the book's love triangle between Keelin, Elaina, and Aimi. Keelin desperately wants to become a respectable gentleman again and that leads him to question his relationship with Captain Black. Unfortunately, Aimi wants to break away from the very respectability he craves. In a story about king-making, piracy, politics, and murder--this is a surprisingly engrossing story.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend readers who like their fantasy a bit more on the gritty side to check this work out. It's not for the faint of heart but that's part of why it's so enjoyable and why I intend to pick up the next volume.