The Black Guard by A. J. Smith

17879401The Black Guard is the first in a major new fantasy series, The Long War, set in an invented world somewhat similar to medieval Europe in terms of technology, heraldry and ethics. Magic features in the world, but is rare and mostly confined to the various priesthoods.

The city of Ro Canarn has been assaulted by Knights of the Red. Amongst them is a Karesian Enchantress of the Seven Sisters, intent on manipulating the men of Ro to her ends. Her Sisters intend the assault to be the first move in a longer game, a war intended to destroy worship of the Gods of men and bring back the malevolent Forest Giant of pleasure and blood.

The young Lord of Canarn, and one of his closest friends, plan a desperate gambit to take back the city, whilst his sister journeys north and confronts more of the Sisters’ schemes as they try to conquer the rest of the lands of men.

Divided by geography and surrounded by enemies, a disparate group of Clerics, Priests, Knights, criminals and warriors must defeat overwhelming odds to seize back the lands of men from those unknowingly under the sway of the Dead God and his Enchantresses.

I found out about The Long War series when Drew @ The Tattooed Book Geek reviewed the fourth and final book, The World Raven, a little while back.  I was immediately interested and snagged The Black Guard from Amazon asap. To give it to you short and sweet? I freaking loved The Black Guard.I have been slowly writing this review now for days because I knew if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to hold myself back and just fangirl gibberish. I hope my thoughts below will do The Black Guard justice and if you’re into epic fantasy, with larger than life characters- you need to check out this series!

[Characters]

What a set we have here… we have the Clerics of various colors (Red, Purple, Black, Gold, Brown, Blue)- each with their own set of rules. Some live a life of abstinence, other drink and shag their way through life as much as they want. Gives for some entertaining dialogue in parts!

We have the assassins (Al Hasim, Rham Jas Rami) who are a joy, truly! Then there are the Seven Sisters (powerful witches with a huge agenda and I can’t wait to read the next book to find out more about them). The Wraiths, the Dokkalfar (forest-dwellers), the Giants (of Fire, Ice, Water and Earth. They’re not really characters but they are important). Oh!… I’ve probably missed someone but you get my gist. The character set is huge and wonderful.

The most interesting aspect of reading The Black Guard was the way Smith executes on characters. Chapters are delivered through various POVs and every time I started reading a new POV I was like- Ooh, I like! They could be my favorite character. Only to be given a snippet of information in the next chapter which made me question whether I had put my ‘faith’ in the right man, you know? Essentially, what I’m trying to say is- it’s like the line in between the villains and heroes is really muddy for a while because you don’t know what to expect from them and it added a great element of apprehension and foreboding. There is show of respect and decency, even in between enemies, and I enjoyed that, hero or villain, there were certain lines either would not cross even if the end game was to kill.

None of the characters in this book are wimps. There are a few men that are despicable, but they’re no wimps. Men and women alike are ambitious and pull their own weight so expect big personalities with impactful presence.

My favorite character? I have a few. Utha the Ghost who is a Black Cleric and Father Magnus. Both larger than life, scary as hell and men of their words. What’s not to like. I also developed a huge… HUGE… liking to Dokkalfar, the forest-dwellers, and I was very excited to find out that their language was inspired by Finnish. I could actually understand the few sentences they spoke in their language! Totally relatable to me on a personal level.

[Plot / World]

Quite honestly, this book was brain food for me in terms of keeping up with who and how was connected but it wasn’t confusing. Never confusing.

The world Smith has created is simple in terms of what it looks like, but the structure of hierarchies and the people and different cultures are diverse. I mentioned I really took a liking to Dokkalfar, so when I read about what their world look like, I was blown away. I’m a forest-freak anyway myself, so this was like a fantasy land I want to someday travel to.

There is plenty of bloody and brutal in this book where each scene is laced with loyalty, honor and companionship. I enjoyed the elements of prejudice, hypocrisy, ambition and fear being used to their full potential in the dymanics, as well as loyalty, honor and friendship. All the things that we counter and feel in our everyday lives were present and this made the relationships (good or bad) in this book enthralling.

[Pace]

Lads, this book is long. It’s like a 100 mile journey with a whole lot of fingers in the pie. Actually, the book is 600+ pages and I don’t often read ‘hefty tomes’ but it was totally worth it.

The Black Guard starts off really strong by giving a sense of the overall feel of the story straight away thus creating the ‘stickiness’. ‘Stickiness’ is very important with books… the beginnings always help set the tone for the reader. And in the case of The Black Guard, I was hooked because the beginning delivered a real sense of what kind of world I was about to delve into.

I don’t know how other readers would define pacing issues (it would be interesting to find out though, so let me know), but for me, when the pace is not great I start to feel bored with the story and wish something happened: a culmination,  a twist, a reveal, just something to naturally move the story on-wards. So, I noticed some reviewers mention that they felt the start was strong, the mid point a bit slower and the ending a bit rushed.

All valid points and personally, I was afraid that the pace issue was going to happen to me, too. I’m happy to report- it didn’t. Sometimes the first book in a series is used as a full length novel worth of a prologue (yep, it has happened to me) but in this case, I didn’t feel like I needed more progression, there was plenty to keep my bookworm occupied. There was elements to set up the full series but there was also plenty to keep the current events progressing.

As for the ending being rushed- for some reason I also don’t agree with this. And here’s why, from my humble POV- from, say, mid-point on-wards there is a lot of different scenarios our varying groups of characters are finding themselves in. They’re all, more or less, pulling towards the same goal, the same endgame, so it felt natural to me that the ending tied a knot on all those journeys with some epic scenes filled with gains and losses.

[Writing / Storytelling]

A debut? I wouldn’t have guessed. OK- I’m having my fangirl goggles on. So, maybe there were some small niggles. I can think of one specifically where a repetition appeared which is my, say, pet peeve (the mention and description of the Dokkalfar blades to be precise) but as for anything else- nothing stood out as annoying as I was engrossed reading the book. And I’m really just saying this to show you that I did pay attention! The the easy flow of writing and storytelling pulled me in. This book is a work of art: it’s truly many-faceted with one huge overarching destination.

With various character sets, I am fully impressed  at how *easy* everything came across. The writing didn’t confuse me, and surprisingly enough I was amazed at how effortless it was for me to remember everything that was happening. Sometimes, the writing overloads the reader with details of totally unrelated things to the moment just to set something up as the story progresses thus sometimes setting the reader up to forget important points in the storyline and this can be a downfall of the whole reading experience. The Black Guard was one of those quality reads for me that I could really just sit back and relax with, because each page that passed I just knew with confidence that I wasn’t missing something huge while being able to lose myself in fight scenes or a fresh POV or simple banter.

And here’s my absolute favorite: I loved the variations of insults the characters used. My favorite has to be ‘troll fucker’ and I will be sure to use this one proudly IRL, thank you very much.

The descriptions (characters, environment, scenes) are truly detailed but not in a way that makes reading laborious but was rather executed in a way that helped me create a superb visual in my head.

The dialogue in between friends and foes varies from insult to seriousness to proper (at times black) humor and it didn’t feel clunky nor forced.

[Overall]

This is totally my kind of fantasy- brutal, complex and full of profanity and boisterous characters. I have nothing to complain about and I fully intend to keep reading the series as the world and its characters have ensnared me completely. I would be interested to see the author’s ‘back office’ work for this book/series- the way he keeps track of all the connections in between characters and events, a process flow chart. My guess is, it’s freaking impressive! 🙂 5 Stars.

 

32 comments

    • Thanks. yep, with books like this, as a reader, you could truly imagine the work and time that has gone into pulling a story together and when everything just works so well – from dialogue to fight scenes- it’s just a joy to read 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ugh .. my TBR is long enough. Drew certainly has a way of expanding it when it comes to good fantasy. I have to admit, this sounds like a fantastic read. I love that there is enough going on to keep you wondering in terms of characters and PoV, but that the author executes it properly without muddling it all. That can be a huge problem with larger fantasy. It is always a toss, it will either work or it will not. There does not seem to be an in between. This is a fabulous review! You make me want to pick this up instantly!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Massive respect for using ‘hefty tomes’ in your review, it’s my favourite phrase to describe large fantasy books, manly fist bump! \m/

    Thanks for the shout out and you even linked to my review of the fourth book, I posted that ages ago, now that’s dedication!

    I’m so glad that you liked the book, it has a few slight issues, like the pacing, etc but nothing to detract from the enjoyment and the good far far outweighs the bad bits of the book.

    Troll f#cker, I like it, some good cursing throughout the series. 🙂

    Rham Jas and Al Hasim are great characters, Rham Jas is my favourite but both are quality. Utha the Ghost is quality to, most of the characters are to be honest, great world building and writing to and Dokkalfar rule! 🙂

    So many characters but he handles them all so well, each with varying personalities and races.

    As you say, it’s hard to believe it’s Smith’s debut as he does an outstanding job with it, all four of the books in the series are top reads.

    It certainly has everything you need in a good fantasy book! 🙂

    Great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That description with the colors and their own set of rules.. makes me think of Harry Potter sort of, but I guess this world building is a bit more badass :-). 600 pages is a lot but if it’s an amazing book I’m sure that’s even something more to look forward too. I find myself wishing sometimes that a book was a bit longer :-).

    Liked by 1 person

    • 🙂 Ah, interesting.. I’ve never read Harry Potter so it’s cool to find out some similarities.
      Oh definitely.. 600 pages.. I felt like I was taking forever to finish it what with being used to the 200+/300 page books with the occasional 400+… If you’re wishing the book was longer, then it means the story was good?! 🙂 You just don’t want it to end.

      Like

  4. While reading your review, the word I had in mind for this book is: strong. It looks like every aspect has been carefully and powerfully cared for and it has created this big thing that devours the reader! 😀 Awesome review

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow! What a wonderful and passionate review! It’s obvious that this book moved you. I assume you plan on reading the rest of the series? Damn Drew for hooking you on these huge tomes! I have soooo many fantasy series I am mid-book, I feel like I can’t pick up another one right now. But this has definitely been added to my TBR.

    Finnish, hm? I am totally intrigued. I wonder why that was the base language… any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sure will read the rest of the series 🙂 Just loved the whole concept and characters were just right to my taste 🙂
      The author does give a bit of insight at the end of the book how he did the worldbuilding, etc and he has taken the European region as something to draw inspiration from, among other things. The Finnish only appears in 1 place but it was a nice positive shocker for me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really enjoyed reading your review. This story line sounds interesting. I like the idea/of the different groups of clerics each with their own set of rules. I am kind of off epic fantasy right know..I go through phases. I will have to remember this title when I start craving it again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, defo keep this one in mind when in search for some epic adult fantasy! It was really good, I thought and I’m hoping the series keeps up.. it did keep consistency for Drew so I have high hopes 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the review, Liz. if you’re actually interested in the nuts-and-bolts of how it all came together, I wrote a bunch of “post-mortem” blogs once I’d finished. They’re on my Goodreads page and Twitter. Thanks again.

    AJS

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! one of the best fantasies I’ve read in the past couple of years for sure.
      Thanks for the heads up, I will defo check out the ‘post-mortem’ blogs ☺

      Like

  8. There are a whole lot of fantasy worlds out there, but you drew me into this one by your summary alone, particularly your summary of the factions and medieval-esque time period. This is a rich, stellar review which I got a lot out of. The Clerics of various colors reminded me of Robert Jordan’s “Ajah” system in his Wheel of Time series. In his books, magic-wielders chose between Blue, Brown, Green, Gray, Red, White, and Yellow factions. Just a similarity I noted! Once again, great review! 😀

    Like

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