A Discourse in Steel is the second book in Paul S. Kemp’s new sword and sorcery series, Tales of Egil and Nix. In this book, our intrepid heroes try once again to retire, and fail once again to avoid falling headlong into crazy adventures and deadly peril.
Building on previous successes
Second books are always tough. There’s a bit of a push to try and do new things, to stretch boundaries and grow your characters or your setting or your world. There’s also a bit of a pull the opposite way, to stick with what works and play it safe. It’s considered rare enough for a second book/movie/album to be better than the first that it’s a very common topic of discussion in forum communities or conversations with friends and fellow nerds.
In A Discourse in Steel, Kemp finds a very strong balance between those two directions. It is similar enough to the first book, The Hammer and the Blade, that you feel like you’re just picking up and carrying on right where you left off. At the same time, it does expand our knowledge of the characters and their setting enough to not seem repetitious. Given that the events of this new book take place only a few months after the earlier volume, it really does feel like a next installment of what we should almost consider one big long story, and the growth of the world around them is keeping that same pace.
I drew attention in my review for The Hammer and the Blade to the distinction between this being the tale of Egil and Nix or, as it says on the cover of both books, a tale of Egil and Nix. The tone and style of the stories feel like we’re sitting around the tavern, legs propped up on the table with a flagon, while Egil and Nix recount the story for us.
What the fak is this?
One thing that did sort of bug me in this book was the presence of the word “fak” and all of the usual extensions of the word. Long time readers of my work (so basically, my family and the other staff of the website *grin*) might remember that I wrote a piece way back when about things that bugged me about fantasy novels. One of my entries was the use of alternate spellings for words we all already know and have in our lexicon. I feel like either you can create a new language for your world or you should just use ours. I feel we gain nothing from putting milk from our kau into our kava. If it looks like a cow, and it functions like a cow, just call it a cow. It isn’t going to kill our immersion. I promise.
I feel the same way about cursing. I can’t help but feel when I see people saying darn instead of damn, or shoot, frick, or dang that they’re actually being a little insulting. I know what you’re thinking, I know what you mean, and you aren’t fooling anybody by manually replacing the word with a tamer one. It’s okay; books don’t have ratings from the ESRB, and nobody reading it is going to see “fak” and not know what you mean. Just say “fuck.” Please.
Hooray for quibbles
Honestly, when the substitute of a swear word for a more mild alternative is the only thing I have to complain about, you know this is an excellent book. Egil and Nix are great characters, and Kemp writes them exceptionally well. I really feel like we’re witnessing the reinvention of sword and sorcery. The genre is coming back, and coming back strong.
This is the sea change that was needed to bring back this style of high-action, fast-paced, character-driven story: an ability to still include deeper, more engaging characters that aren’t just machines of death. That’s entertaining for 14-year-olds, but it quickly grows stale as one’s tastes mature. When a character’s primary conflict is, “Shall I kill fifty enemies today without getting a scratch on me, or go for the full seventy-five?” I just lose interest.
Egil and Nix survive these adventures through equal parts experience, cunning, and blind luck. They get beaten, they get knocked out, they actually risk death every time they go into action, and it is so much more engaging because of it. Because they are allowed to grow and develop, have flaws, suffer for their flaws, have virtues, and suffer for those too, they just feel so much more complete. I don’t think we needed Drizzt 2.0, and it’s great to see we didn’t get it.
Why should you read this book?
As always with sequels, you should read this book because you read and enjoyed the first book. The reason you should read both is exactly as I’ve detailed above. These are great action-packed adventure stories without all the horrible, flawless Mary Sue characters staying perfect and unchanged through “character development” that almost never challenges the character or the reader. Kemp excels at making the characters feel genuine. You identify with them. I want to buy Nix a drink. Probably scotch.