Before we get started, I need to disclose a few things.
I can't claim to be a detached, disinterested critic going into this review. Larry Correia has been on the podcast that I co-host. He generously Book-Bombed! my first novel, Nethereal. A few months ago I got to hang out with Larry at the Salt Lake City Comic Con, where I gave him a signed copy of my second novel Souldancer (which, like Son of the Black Sword, is a Dragon Award winner).
Larry Correia is more than an author whose books I enjoy and whom I respect as a professional. Considering everything he's done for me, I consider Larry a personal friend. So keep in mind that this won't be an unbiased review, though it will be honest and informed by my experience as a reader and an author.
Son of the Black SwordA while back, I reviewed the first book of Larry's Grimnoire Chronicles, Hard Magic. In that review, I mentioned that I've also read Monster Hunter International, the first entry in the same author's flagship series. Before reading Monster Hunter or Grimnoire book 2, I decided to continue the trend and read Son of the Black Sword, Saga of the Forgotten Warrior Book I.
Son of the Black Sword has been called Larry's first work of fantasy. That claim is only superficially accurate, however, since the other two books of his that I've read contain fantastical elements. I also have suspicions about the origins of the magic in this latest series, but saying any more would risk spoilers.
SotBS does feature the most classic fantasy setting of any Larry Correia book so far. But in keeping with the author's penchant for the delightfully unorthodox, the land of Lok draws much more heavily from far Eastern tropes and imagery than the largely shopworn trappings of standard Western fantasy. In this world, a grim order of Protectors enforce the all-encompassing Law that has replaced religion and segregates the populace into rigid castes.
The central figure in this tale is Ashok Vadal, a senior Protector and the Bearer of Angruvadal--an ancient sword made of magical black steel that stores the collected knowledge and battle experience of its past wielders. Holding either office makes a man a force to be reckoned with. Being both a Protector and an ancestor blade Bearer at the same time makes Ashok the most dangerous man alive.
Let me pause here to address those who've stereotyped Larry as a crude writer of explosion porn, and who assume that Ashok Vadal is a humorless, invincible death machine that considers killing his go-to solution for every problem.
Your assumptions about Ashok are 100% correct.
But your assumptions about Larry are marvelously wrong.
Sure, Ashok has the personality of a wood chipper, but Larry makes him sympathetic anyway. Ashok can kill any man in the world with a soup spoon, but Larry never lets the dramatic tension drop. This is certainly no Gary Stu without flaws. Ashok's not even a munchkin-style character with "flaws" that either fail to be effective hindrances or are actually blessings in disguise. He is a profoundly broken character who is equally subjugated and empowered by the Law he serves.
Ashok may as well be a granite statue with "Magical Cop" chiseled into the base. And yet, Larry Correia makes you genuinely care about his problems through top shelf world building and the masterful characterization of everyone from the stalwart yet jealous brother in arms who was denied his own ancestor blade by a cruel turn of fate to the dedicated yet evil assassin who stalks the crowded streets of a bustling capitol. Anyone who accuses Son of the Black Sword of being hack work probably thinks that rednecks prefer drinking gin.
Going much deeper into the book's plot poses major spoiler risks, so I'll restrict myself to saying that several of the twists near the end genuinely and pleasantly surprised me, and that the author took fascinating risks with multiple characters that never came off as out of character. This book definitely left me wanting more.
Son of the Black Sword is impeccably written, unquestionably fun, and undoubtedly the best of Larry's books that I've had the pleasure of reading. SotBS is Larry's masterpiece. It deserved its Dragon Award win, and it puts paid to the ridiculous claims that Larry isn't a real writer. In addition to his superlative handling of his characters, he tackles complex themes like armed citizens as a check against tyranny and quandaries arising from conflicts between positive and natural law. Don't worry. You won't find any civics lectures or suspension of disbelief-destroying scoldings here. Despite his reputation as a bruiser, Larry has a light touch.
He also has a character named Thera--a coincidence that Soul Cycle fans will find amusing :)
In terms of negatives, I'm struggling to come up with something to demonstrate that I'm not just sucking up. Okay. There's a deus ex machina near the middle that probably could've used more setting up. The resolution of one supporting character's subplot felt a little anticlimactic. That's it, really. The only thing that outright bugged me about Son of the Black Sword wasn't Larry's fault at all, and that's the front cover. Offense is taken at the substitution of Larry Elmore's gorgeous cover with yet another dust jacket that's afraid to admit it contains a work of genre fiction.
|For me, this will always be SotBS's cover.|
I haven't even begun to do this book justice. Go ahead and buy it. You know you want to.
And as long as you're springing for Son of the Black Sword, you might as well pick up its fellow Dragon Award-winner Souldancer. Both books start with "s" and have characters named Thera, but Larry's book has nigh-unkillable shark-skinned demons, whereas mine has a girl made of animate, searing-hot brass.
On a related note, Souldancer's sequel The Secret Kings officially launches tomorrow. Early reader buzz has it that the series has come into its own with SK. Check back here on Monday for details.
UPDATE: The Secret Kings is now available on Amazon for Kindle and in trade paperback from CreateSpace.