Some of you most likely know about Where Loyalties Lie (WLL) from this year SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off) competition that’s being held by Mark Lawrence. This book is currently leading the competition and has a strong chance of actually winning it or becoming the second place; it’s pretty much guaranteed now. However, I want to clarify that although I’m one of the judges for the competition, I’m not reviewing this book to have my rating be included in it. My co-blogger, Celeste, has reviewed it already and her rating of the book remains the one that should be put accountable in the competition. I’m just reading this duology because she recommended it to me and I’m pretty much in the mood for a grimdark book filled with foul-mouthed words; this book fulfilled these criteria.
The plot of the book centered on Captain Drake Morass, who are trying to unite the other pirate captains under his flag but in order to do that, he’s going to need allies and the help of the Oracle—Keelin Stillwater—to become his right-hand man. WLL is pretty much a slow burn, the plot took its time to get going and overall it seems more like a preparation book for the big conclusion in the second book. The first thing you’ll notice when you start this book is the unique naming and storytelling style of the multi-POV. Instead of characters’ names, we get the ships’ names and within each chapter, we get to see the story unfolds from the perspective of the specified ship’s crews instead of it being limited to a few characters only. Sure the main characters are still Drake, Keelin, and Elaina Black, but I found this style of storytelling a unique experience and something I really appreciate. It did take me around 100 pages to really warm up to the characters but once I did, my experience reading this pirate fantasy adventure was overall fun and engaging.
Do know that this is a grimdark book, it contained plenty of explicit sex scenes, rape, and it’s full of foul-mouthed language (which I’m really in the mood for) but most importantly, it never stopped being fun. Hayes’s characters and dialogues are great, the characters behave as if they’re real pirates (not that I ever see one in real life) and speak with an accent like the one you see in most pirate entertainment media. The politics between the pirates, the honor among thieves, and the dangerous—at times humorous—interactions between the pirates are something that I know a lot of readers will enjoy.
My favorite part of the book however lies within the setting and the nautical action sequences. This book reminds me of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a game that I didn’t expect to love but somehow it won over me. The book took place in the Pirate Isles and every small island’s setting and inhabitants were well described vividly. There aren’t a lot of nautical action sequences yet here but when they’re there, it was fantastic. I REALLY hope the second book will give me more of this because Hayes’s nautical battle is great, intense, and definitely something I look forward to reading more. All of these work because of Hayes’s prose which was simple but efficient. Even though this is an indie book, it’s very well polished. I literally only spot one typo in the whole book and that’s something rare in indie.
As to what parts that didn’t work for me? There are two main factors here and obviously, these are just my opinion and other readers may find it differently.
First, there isn’t anything new to offer for the grimdark genre here. This doesn’t mean every series have to provide something new but the characters, even when they’re compelling and fun to read, felt the same as pretty much the majority of grimdark books. Maybe I’m getting way used to grimdark already by now but I just didn’t get the reaction that I think the book tried to offer during some section of the book. A spoiler-free example of this one is the rape scene that occurs very early in the book. My issue with this is not the scene itself because I can read anything without being triggered, but it’s the fact that it occurred too soon to left any memorable impact on me. For example, one of the main characters was raped immediately on her first POV appearance. I feel like I should empathize or be shocked by this but I simply wasn’t; it actually didn’t faze me at all. Not that I ever enjoy reading rape scenes, but Robin Hobb’s rape scene left me with tons of emotional impact. She spent some time developing her character first before having her character be raped, I’ve started to know and care for the character and when that scene happened, it left me an emotional impact that lasts up to this day; her books don’t even belong in the grimdark genre! I want this kind of brutal scene to traumatize me, left me feeling sad for his/her fate, instead of left me feeling “ah okay” and sadly, that’s the reaction I received not only from this scene but a few more scenes.
The second one, this is completely not the author’s fault, it’s mine. I always have an incredibly hard time reading a standalone or a new series that took place in the same world as the author’s main series. Authors will always say “you can read this without reading the main series first” and although that’s technically true, I can’t help but always felt like: “I think I should know more about this”, during tons of section in the book and I don’t like that kind of feeling. A few examples in the book would be the mention of Black Thorn, he was mentioned here and I’m pretty sure he’s one of the main characters from Hayes main trilogy. Without having read the main trilogy first, the mention of his name will not hold the same impact compared to having read it. Another example is Beck, the Arbiter. I don’t know if she appeared in the main trilogy or not but she was treated as highly dangerous because of her status as an Arbiter. However, she didn’t actually do anything memorable to warrant the “dangerous” fame and it left me wondering why the heck everyone’s scared of her. I’m sure the main trilogy dived more into this. Like I said, this kind of case doesn’t only apply to this series, it’s seriously not the author’s fault but just my preferences to get all the nuances from any kind of books I read. Some people told me it’s definitely okay to read Abercrombie’s standalone series without having read his First Law trilogy; I extremely disagree with this notion. The nuances are something super important to me as a reader and I’d rather spend more time reading the main trilogy first in order to get maximum experience of the world in the specific series. This also means that I STRONGLY believe that no matter how small the main trilogy played a part to this duology, I’m sure would enjoy this book even more if I’ve actually read Hayes’s Ties That Bind trilogy first.
Although I took a long time explaining the parts that didn’t work for me than the one that did work and I may sound critical here, don’t let it let you into thinking that this book isn’t good because it is; my rating speaks for itself. I was never bored reading the book and I enjoyed it, these are more of an “I would enjoy it so much more if only” situation rather than them being real cons.
Overall, Where Loyalties Lie is a good start for the Best Laid Plans duology. The book sounds more like a preparation for the big showdown in the sequel and I hope the book will deliver me more nautical battle sequences because Hayes’s pirate actions sequences were great and I really want more of them.