The Hammer and the Blade is a series-debuting novel by New York Times bestseller Paul S. Kemp. It introduces us to the adventuring duo of Egil, a warrior-priest, and his erstwhile companion Nix, a sneak, rogue, thief, and general ne’er-do-well, as they loot tombs, quaff ale, and generally get in over their heads. Hilarity ensues.
A Tale of Egil and Nix
The above little bit of subtext appears on the cover of The Hammer and the Blade and represents something I really like and would really enjoy seeing done more often: it drops us into the middle of a world instead of on the edge of one. Us SFF readers, we’re clever people. I trust us to be able to collectively pick up on a story. Many fantasy novels these days (especially those with aspirations of becoming a long series) seem to feel that they must start at the beginning; we need to introduce the characters from scratch, give lots of back story, and work our way into the plot line. We don’t actually need any of that.
We’ll learn about the characters from their actions, and their dialogue. I learned more about Egil and Nix from the opening vignette of their robbing a tomb together than I learned about Rand Al’Thor from three books of prologue. This isn’t “the” tale of Egil and Nix, it’s just “a” tale. There are more where that tale came from, and there are more to come. There’s no promise that the next book picks up where this one left off, and I don’t think we need one. Egil and Nix are already such complete characters to me that I am happy jumping all over their timeline and just enjoying their antics. A bit of the ease with which you settle into their characters is that they are fairly tropey: Egil, the stoic, calm voice of reason… until you piss him off, then he starts smashing alongside Nix, the sarcastic, witty rogue with an eye for the ladies. There’s at least a little bit of Han and Chewbacca influence, as well as some Perrin and Mat. But that’s not a bad thing, either.
To me, Paul Kemp has always been about the development of characters through story. The characters are very real, they evolve, they grow, but they do that through the lens of the events that happen around and to them. We can start simple and fill it in as we go along. It gives the reader a sense of ownership over the characters that is really engaging. If you learn about them in bits and pieces as you go, instead of having this elaborate character study jammed down your throat, it feels more like they are your version of the characters.
Sword and Sorcery back in vogue?
After the recent obsession in fantasy with massive sweeping epic storylines (see the burst of popularity for A Song of Ice and Fire around the HBO release of Game of Thrones, the ongoing popularity of the Wheel of Time, etc.) it was refreshing to get back to basics. I’ve been noticing a resurgence in the episodic, plot driven fantasy of my childhood and adolescence creeping onto the bookshelves, slightly disheveled as if they’ve just come in from the pub. The problems facing Egil and Nix aren’t the types that involve the world hanging in the balance. They robbed a tomb and pissed off a guy who is now causing problems for them. Once this problem is resolved one way or the other, one assumes they’re just going to go back to what they were doing before.
It’s nice to not have to be constantly aware of the wider ranging consequences of a storyline. I don’t have fifty things to keep straight, I don’t have to refer back to the prophecy in the foreword of the book, and I don’t need to try and memorize every character we saw who didn’t die in case they become important later on. I just get to read and enjoy a great story about some cool guys doing cool things. While I appreciate fantasy as high literature as much as (or possibly more) than the next guy, I do feel a little like our zeal to demonstrate to literature snobs that fantasy is a means of deep literary expression that is just as valid as any Oprah Book Club book caused us to stray from the fact that we’re also a genre built around action-packed adventure. Sometimes a longsword is just a longsword.
Why should you read this book?
I found The Hammer and the Blade to be an excellent balance of solid worldbuilding and compelling characters with great action, snappy dialogue, and an emphasis on pacing. I’m hoping the next book in the series, A Discourse in Steel (Released by Angry Robot June 25th 2013), carries this on. I had a lot of fun with this book, and anybody who enjoys that sort of “odd couple” adventure watching great personalities clash around an action-packed episodic style storyline will have fun, too.
Egil and Nix are characters I’m hoping to see a lot more of in the coming years.