Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes

How does an author decide the amount of information to dole out to the reader? When and how much? These are thoughts that I’ve had in my head over and over again as a make my way through a novel. What do I need to be happening in the forefront to keep the action and plot moving, but at the same time what is needed to add depth and overall fulfillment to the reading experience? You can’t have a character hacking people for no reason! Further thoughts: How connected is this protagonist to the world building? How do external world conflicts start to impede on the character’s thoughts and actions? And how does the author weave that into the narrative? I know, a lot of questions, but at times Seven Blades in Black made me contemplate writing just as much as the action on the page.

The story is framed as an interrogation: an outcast mage, Sal the Cacophony has been caught and she knows things. Each drip of information revealed allows her execution to be postponed a little while longer. Sal’s tale of revenge and a past plot by rogue mages on the crown pull you through the book. And as you could probably tell from my above mini-rant, I was at times frustrated with the storytelling, but there were several factors that kept me reading.

There were two draws for me in this book. Sal is a complex character who has all the guts and moxie and mouth to match. Full of dirty jokes, insults, and quips, she’s tough in character and in physicality. But Sykes draws several good scenes that show a side of her that creates a fullness and complexity. Sal has a partner in a Freemaker named Liette. This is a relationship that involves shocked honesty, forced trust, and sometimes, romance. Sal is required to establish a hardshell on the battlefield and in the face of conflict, but Liette demands her true self.

The other parts of the book that I enjoyed are the many episodes or challenges that Sal conveys during the course of the interrogation. Originally arrested for the death of a soldier, she begins to tell an intricate story of vengeance. Set mostly in the Scar, a devastated land that has been the site of a decades-long war, each stop gets Sal closer to her goal of crossing off all the people who have crossed her. From an appropriated roving battle machine to her winged beast that takes her from scuffle to melee, the narrative is filled with imagination in fight scenes and detail.

My biggest criticism that I have alluded to is the fact that it wasn’t until page 300 that the reader gets any real explanation of the past conflicts between the two warring empires that are at the heart of the central conflict. And that explanation was only about a page and half long… It’s a lot to put on both the reader and the main character. It’s good that Sal is such a strong character whose actions can carry the the main plot for most part. But there is a real gap that weakens the worldbuilding. I’m not asking for every plot line to be explained. There has to be some mystery, but what happens when the whole book suffers from holding out for what I thought was too long?

Seven Blades in Black is an intricate and enjoyable character-study that at times suffers from keeping the reader in the dark for a little too long.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you to NetGalley, Orbit Books, and the author for an advanced copy for review.

10 thoughts on “Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes

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    1. Kinda spoilery… but I would have been ok with just Sal’s backstory being mysterious and I liked that it was, but the lack of whole-world politics left everything without a foundation for me.

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    1. The main character is great. One of those mysterious and sarcastic tough fighters. A rogue mage with a mouth. A lot of those in SFF fiction, but this one is done exceptionally well. If you’re in the mood for that, it’s good. But like I said in my review, there were just gaps in the storytelling that left me in the dark for too long.
      This was my first of his… I may try the second in the series. We’ll see.

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  1. Mmm, I had my eye on this book so was keen to read a few reviews. I have such a lot of books on my shelf at the moment that I’ll probably leave it and see if I manage to clear some others out of the way first. Shame about the pacing of information.
    Lynn 😀

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