The Best Kind of Big Mess
An odd phenomena that’s been enabled mostly by Twitter is that I sometimes find myself a fan of an author before I’ve ever read their books. Authors have author friends and retweet them, and the authors I like and follow on Twitter retweet their like minded friends so I end up liking authors whose written works I’ve never read. I find this strange because I can’t imagine how this would happen before Twitter. Maybe reading author interviews in a magazine, or recommendation lists, but the sort of intimate knowledge of who an author publicly associates with seems to be something that’s been uniquely enabled by internet social media, namely Twitter. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I largely like Sam Sykes the person but this is the first time I’ve read a Sam Sykes novel and now I very much enjoy Sam Sykes the author.
Seven Blades in Black starts with Sal the Cacophony recounting her deeds from a prison cell. I was immediately skeptical of how much I would enjoy this because I (mistakenly) thought it would emulate the storytelling of The Name of the Wind, which is a novel I did not like and did not finish (“wow Kvothe, great at everything” - my review). Within this framework, Sal takes us on a hell of a ride as she hunts down a list of fellow Vagrants who have wronged her. Sal has a large handgun (named The Cacophony), a bunch of magic bullets, a magical scarf, and that’s about it.
This novel is an exercise in trusting an author. When it starts like another novel I didn’t like, it proved me wrong to misjudge it. When it doesn’t explain its setting or history from the start, it respected my patience by giving me enough to keep going and eventually answering my questions. When it threw “TEN THOUSAND YEARS!” and “Eres va atali” at me without a whole lot of context, it explained what those phrases meant at a time when I would appreciate their meaning. I don’t want to explain these things here because I found a lot of enjoyment in keeping those questions in the back of my head. All this boils down to a recommendation that if you’re put off by the first couple chapters because you’re confused, please keep reading.
With that in mind, Sykes expertly builds a world where Sal can get in over her head, alone or with friends, and dig herself out, and make you root for her, even knowing that she’s a terrible person. This is a thick book but it’s a very rewarding read. Over the initial skepticism hump, I was utterly hooked from beginning to end because the characters were compellingly written and the story was well paced. There are moments in media that make me feel things. As an unemotional lizard person, those moments are rare for me, and rarer still in novels. Sykes sets up a couple moments like that in this novel, where all the little things add up to meaning, and it's very well executed.
Sal the Cacophony makes a huge mess and suffers for it and I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t get answers to everything, but I got enough answers that I don’t feel like I was led on. It is well worth the investment and I can’t wait to read the next Sam Sykes novel.
Baseline Assessment: 9/10
Bonuses: +1 you're really going to like this unlikable character
Penalties: -1 requires a modicum in trust that your questions will be answered
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Sykes, Sam. Seven Blades in Black (Orbit, 2019)
2021 Hugo Award Winner: Best Fanzine / 2023 Ignyte Award Finalist: Critics Award
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