Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk
This book forces us back to basics. As a social phenomenon, racism leads one race to treat one or more other races differently. Under normal circumstances, this difference is based on some easily identified feature such as skin colour. Whatever the feature, it’s perceived as making one race superior to the other(s). This perception of superiority is then used as a justification for the differential treatment. In practical terms, racism is also a measure of relative physical power because if the race(s) considered inferior resent(s) the difference in treatment, the individual victims may object. Self-evidently, if the race considering itself superior is able to enforce its will through the use of violence, we get into a self-reinforcing cycle which produces a stereotype of superiority and consolidates the prejudice and associated discrimination. The most obvious way in which this dominance/subservience is entrenched into local cultures is through the practice of slavery where the members of the inferior races are treated as property to be owned and, where relevant, inherited as a part of the land.
Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk (Pyr, 2014) The Book of the Black Earth 1 is set on the same fantasy world as his previous series featuring Caim. This time, most of the relevant action takes place in a country called Akeshia which is a version of 1001 Arabian Nights overlapping Egypt to give us sword and sorcery with factional political infighting. The magic system depends on zoana which allows the manipulation of the traditional elements: earth, wind, fire and water, plus the void. All children in this part of the world are tested and those with the ability to manipulate one or more of the elements, get higher status and potential access to political power. Those with the highest abilities get to be rulers, whether in the overt political domain or in the religious cults which train their sorcerers from young to be blindly obedient to the “faith”. Of course everyone is really interested in secular power but, for now, there’s an uneasy balance between the secular rulers and the priests of the Sun Cult which has emerged the victor in the “godwars”.
We start off in a period of this world’s history not entirely dissimilar to our own with the “European” races setting off on another “Crusade” to suppress the inferior races. Horace Delarosa, our “hero”, joins one of the ships as a carpenter but, in a sorcerous storm, the ship is lost and he washes up on the shore of Akeshia. So here comes a man not speaking the language and having no idea of local cultural norms of behaviour. Not surprisingly, he’s immediately arrested and, although shown some kindness by local villagers, he’s soon going inland on a forced march. However, as an inherently “better” human being, he defends the weak and befriends the downtrodden. “Europeans” have nobility of spirit written into their DNA. They are also gentle and humble and awfully nice, even when provoked by the soldiers guarding the slaves. We then get into the substance of the book through the arrival of another sorcerous storm. Two adepts go out in front of the caravan to defend themselves and their property (the slaves) but their skills are not up to the task. At this point, our hero discovers he can just switch off the storm. Yes, our superior European can instinctively do what no other local can do even after a lifetime of training.
And here comes the big plus to this discovery. No-one who can use the zoana can be treated as a slave. So through this inherent ability, he goes from the bottom of the heap to a launching pad which could enable him to be king one day. Yes, you can’t keep a good “European” down. No matter where he ends up, he’s always superior and will rise to the top. A few pages later, he’s being introduced to Queen Byleth of Erugash, one of the ten city-states controlling Akeshia and, wowser, is she a looker! Yes, she takes one look at our hero and she wants his genes in her children. There’s just one problem. Her political state is parlous. She’s about to be married off to a puppet of the Sun Cult so unless our hero can pull a rabbit out of his hat (that’s a euphemism but, in this instance, not one referring to sexual activity), she’s going to lose her role as de jure leader and become a mere baby producer for the puppet king.
Into the mix, comes Alyra who’s a spy working undercover as a slave in the Queen’s household and Jirom, an ex-soldier and gladiator whom our hero met as a fellow slave. Naturally, Alyra is also taken with our hero and Jirom is gay which makes their relationship confusing and explains why, despite his best efforts, Jirom is kept away from our hero lest he be tempted to the dark side (or something). So with just a few words of encouragement, our hero is soon demonstrating powers not seen in more than two-hundred years. When Europeans are good at something, they are really, really good at it! It was never a fair contest really and, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, he’s the number 1 warrior to the Queen and all-round nice guy. So he fights a few good fights and, despite not knowing how he’s doing what he’s doing with this magic thing, he’s doing it so well, he’s winning all his fights. Better still, when the locals use their powers, they develop stigmata and bleed from their wounds, but our hero ends up as good looking as when he started (once he’s combed his hair, of course).
So there you have it. Our hero saves the Queen (several times), incinerates lots of enemies, dispatches various demons and other creatures from “beyond”, and generally shows these primitive savages how a gentleman from “Europe” behaves. This makes all the women swoon and most of the ruling elite hate his guts — jealousy is a terrible curse even when magic is real — yes, my curse is bigger than your curse! The political machinations are somewhat simplistic and the increasingly divergent narratives arcs featuring Jirom are not as well integrated as they might have been making the pacing uneven and, at times, distinctly leaden. Summing up, at almost every level, Blood and Iron is overtly racist and sexist — at some points by my standards, offensively so. This may not be a problem for some readers. If all you want to see is people fighting using various levels of magical skill, this is a “classic” fantasy novel and you’ll probably enjoy this. Anyone else should steer well clear.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.