Son of the Black Sword: The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior I
Hardcover, 412 pp., $25.00
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Larry Correia’s action-adventure novels range from military thrillers to urban fantasies to epic high fantasies, often with accurately detailed depictions of modern and imagined weaponry. His first novel, Monster Hunters International, placed on the Locus bestsellers list; its sequel appeared on the New York Times lists, as have subsequent books. His series include Grimnoir Chronicles, Dead Six (with Mike Kupari), and now The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior. His work in speculative fiction/fantasy is highly regarded, as is the straightforwardness with which he defends his stands on such diverse issues as the role of speculative fiction in society and gun use and gun control.
For readers familiar with Correia’s work only through his Monster Hunters International series, Son of the Black Sword might seem like an established approach to an accustomed pattern. In the first pages, Correia presents his hero, Ashok Vadal, with a monster to be dispatched: a sea-demon threatening to destroy villages along the coast of the continent Lok. Ashok is a literal “monster hunter international,” since as a member of the Protector Order he is obliged to ferret out and punish Law-breakers, often crossing borders of the several family-states that compose Lok. For a demon to leave the vile ocean—the word itself is a curse-word and a synonym for Hell—breaks one of the most fundamental Laws of Capitol, so it sends its best warrior to destroy it.
It rapidly becomes apparent, however, that Son is not simply MHI warmed over. It is a story of far greater complexity and nuance, as Correia moves from the initial action-adventure sequence into something meriting the label of “epic fantasy”—and I do not use the word epic lightly or loosely.
The opening chapters of Son constitute a highly effective and minimally derivative re-imagining of the heroic world of Beowulf. There is a beleaguered land, ravaged by the incursions of a beast whose name identifies it as a force of chaos and lawlessness. There is a muscular hero, come from a distant land to succor the stricken community. And, in a world consumed with forgetting the myths that gave it form, Ashok is “epic” in the sense articulated by Northrop Frye (1912-1991). The heroes of Myth, he argued, differ from humanity in both kind and degree; they are of a separate species, often gods, and superior in every sense to ordinary mortals. Epic heroes, on the other hand, differ in degree only; they are mortals, but they also possess unusual strengths and powers that allow them to aid their people. As a Protector, Ashok has been mentored by the greatest of his Order (another epic tag), mastered years of apprenticeship, and now stands superlative. He is mortal; he is also the one person on whom the fate of his world revolves.
In addition, he bears a distinctive weapon—a named sword on the order of Beowulf’s Hruntung, Roland’s Durendal, Aragorn’s Andúril, and a legion of others. Like Arthur’s Excalibur, Angruvadal selects its wielder. Only one hero at a time—the chosen Bearer—can so much as touch the blade, forged from magical black steel. Unlike Excalibur, if unworthy hands touch Angruvadal, the sword forces them to destroy themselves, hideously, horrifically, and bloodily. And for fifty generations, it has kept a deadly secret.
Much of this overriding sense of epic depth and breadth develops in the opening chapters; at the same time, however, it is subtly undercut by an increasing awareness that the educated, civilized peoples of Lok no longer welcomes such stories…or such heroes. The world is under the Age of Law, with everyone divided into rigid castes, each group acting according to rules appropriate to its relative position except for the lowest level, the casteless, the non-persons whose lives depend entirely upon the whims of their superiors. They are considered beneath and in some senses outside of the Law.
Ashok is the most unyielding of his Order, the most dedicated to an almost mindless championing of the Law; and thus, though shattered upon discovering the truth of who and what he is, he is adamant that full justice be served upon him, and committed to fulfilling every jot and tittle of the devastating punishment pronounced.
What might in lesser hands devolve into a shopworn, quasi-totalitarian fantasy is relieved by the gradual revelation that the Myths of Lok’s past are much more than stories. There was a War of the Gods—and, hence, there are Gods that, after generations, again intervene in the ways of men and women. There was a great battle against fallen demons, which were cast down and eventually driven into the sea. Now demons have begun to come ashore and devastate the countryside until stopped by a Protector. And the black sword Angruvadal maintains the memories of all of these events and passes them on to each Bearer, continuing an invisible link from past to present to future.
From this complex set of givens, Son carefully peels back the veneer of order and stability to reveal the darkest secrets of the states composing Lok. Along the way, Correia provides action aplenty: twists and turns—some hideous, some glorious; fascinating characters portraying an extraordinarily wide range of motivations and emotions; devious and divisive plots and counter-plots, and, more than once, counter-counter-plots. The main characters struggle to remain true to core beliefs and at the same time adapt to new circumstances in ways that allow them to sustain their commitments to remaining loyal, to meeting obligations, and to bringing about the greatest good for Lok.
Perhaps the most interesting subset of images and ideas relates to religion. Correia never preaches, although readers aware of his backgrounds might recognize occasional familiar phrases, such as the statement near the end that Angruvadal, with Ashok’s aid, “fulfilled the measure of its creation” or the earlier extended metaphor on baptism as symbolic rebirth and a literal new beginning. In Lok, belief in absolutes never wanes, even when their overt manifestations stagnate and become subject to manipulation by evil minds ostensibly committed to them. As Ashok enters more and more fully into the realm of faith, of prophesy, of direct revelation (as it were), Son of the Black Sword gains in power and intensity. And by the final pages, every order of society, from the Grand Inquisitor to the nearly countless masses of casteless, realize that the world as they knew it has passed…and none know what the future will bring.
Highly recommended…and be on the lookout for the next installment.