Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Jeff Salyards – Broken, but Unbowed

Jeff Salyards swooped onto my radar from left field. One day I had no idea who he was, and the next he seemed to be everywhere. His entrence into all things literary has been quite a bang. He has just released his first book, Scourge of the Betrayer, which is getting lots of reviews and discussion and Jeff himself has remained quite humble about it all. He seems to be quite busy, filling his time with ample interviews and guest posts as well as busy tweeting/linking to the numerous reviews that seem to be popping up daily, and it must be hard work, but he doesn’t let it affect his friendly, happy attitude and his obvious enthusiasm.

I always find it interesting to watch new author’s careers bloom. Each person seems to handle their social networking and internet advertising differently, and that’s always an interesting reflection of the author themselves. Jeff seems to still be trying to find his self-promotion legs, but I appreciate that about him. He’s not in-your-face, and that seems to only make people notice him more and take him more seriously. His quiet-yet-powerful ability to promote his work, combined with the incredible quality of Scourge of the Betrayer will, and already has put Jeff on the list of new authors to watch. His career is just starting out, and it’s already amazing. I honestly can’t wait to see what’s down the road for him because I predict that whatever it is will be nothing short of amazing.

About the author (in his words)

I grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn’t Mayberry, with all the doors unlocked and everyone offering each other slices of pie and quaint homilies, it was pretty quiet and sleepy, so I got started early imagining my way into all kinds of other worlds and universes that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters and heaps of danger. Massive explosions. Tentacled aliens. Men with sharp swords and thousand-yard stares and secrets they would die to protect. Clearly, I was a full-bore dork.

Royal Crown bag full of multi-sided dice? Check. Blood-red hooded cloak? Check. Annual pilgrimages to Renaissance Faires? Check. Whacking other (curiously athletic and gifted) dorks with rattan swords in the SCA? Check. Yes, I earned my badges, thank you very much.

My whole life, I’ve been fascinated by the fantastic, and of course this extended to speculative fiction of all kinds. Countless prepubescent evenings found me reading a worn, dog-eared copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars (it sounded so much dirtier than it was!) or The Frost Giant’s Daughter (high hopes for that one too!) well past lights-out, flashlight in hand, ignoring the repeated calls to turn in. That’s as quiet and harmless a rebellion as you can have, and my parents mostly sighed and left me to it.

So, no one has ever been surprised to hear that I was working on (or at least talking about working on) some sci-fi or fantasy story or other. But it took years of flirting with various projects, flitting from one to the next without the hint of complete commitment, before I finally mastered myself enough to finish a novel. And longer still before I finished another one that was worthy of being published.

But wonders never cease. And here we are.

My debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, is a hard-boiled fantasy to be published by Night Shade Books in May 2012. It’s the first installment in a series called Bloodsounder’s Arc. I’m so excited I’m beginning to annoy myself. I am represented by Michael Harriot at Folio Literary Management, and couldn’t be happier. His savvy, smart advice has been invaluable on this journey. I suspect he has a secret stash of 20-siders somewhere in his desk.

I live with my lovely wife, Kris, and three daughters in a suburb west of Chicago. I am indebted to Kris in countless ways for her steadfast encouragement, support, and thick skin in dealing with a prickly, moody writer. I don’t always like living with me, but she has a choice and stays anyway.

And before you are tempted to mention it, I am fully aware that siring three daughters is certainly karmic retribution, particularly when they all transform into teenagers. I cling to the hope of discovering at least one of them reading covertly in the middle of the night. That kind of transgression I can handle.

Broken, But Unbowed

My wife comes from a family that adopted 10 special needs children. No, that isn’t a misprint. Double digits. And not to minimize other special needs, but these kids are dealing with some of the biggies: Spina bifida, schizophrenia, bi-polar, epilepsy, you name it. So when my wife and I were dating and started getting serious, I made it a point to have a pretty candid conversation that went something like: “I admire your parents a ton. They are incredible, loving, giving people with more patience and a higher threshold for stress than I can possibly imagine. But if that’s something you want to emulate or replicate—adopting a battalion of special needs kids—well, honey, I’m just the wrong guy for the job. I’m really not selfless enough. In fact, I’m kind of a selfish bastard most days, but you know that already.”

Luckily for me, we were on the same wavelength and she could tolerate my Jeff-centric behavior, so it all worked out. We have three kids of our own now, and that is PLENTY. There are some days our own brood is a little overwhelming (at least for me), so I have an even greater appreciation for what my in-laws do every day. If there’s a heaven, they secured their spot for all-time, even if they decide to go on a crime spree now.

In my own family, my brother suffered from a terrible case of diabetes that grew increasingly more serious as he got older, leading to multiple organ failures and transplants (kidney and pancreas, each twice), near-blindness, circulatory issues and neuropathy, and a number of surgeries, including amputation.

So, while I’m certainly no expert on disabilities, having only witnessed them rather than endured them personally, watching people facing extreme challenges has no doubt impacted me and my fiction.

As Sarah pointed out when she asked me to do this gig, I have a few characters in Scourge of the Betrayer that are disfigured, scarred, or malformed. That’s no accident. When I originally conceived of the story, I decided it needed to have a certain heavy mood. I wanted this world to be hard-boiled, unforgiving, and almost film noirish with intrigue and double-dealing. So, the battles are remorseless and without pageantry—more akin to Rob Roy than Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood; there’s no shortage of blood and piss and shit; the levity usually comes in the form of gallow’s humor or barbed wit; and I included several characters who are broken or damaged in some fashion, because a pre-modern world teeming with warfare and plagues would certainly be peopled with them, and this one even more so. While there are some flashes of beauty and poignancy here and there, it’s generally a tough, tough place.

I knew the narrator, Arkamondos (or Arki, as he is called), was going to be a young, naïve scribe accompanying a band of brooding veteran Syldoon soldiers. Arki is a gentle soul, really untested by the world, and his sensibilities are a stark contrast with the crew’s, particularly their leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin, who is particularly adept at bloodletting and biting rejoinders. As Arki wrestles with reconciling his worldview and inexperience with the Syldoon’s attitudes and abilities to dole out serious damage, these interactions and his observations serve as a counterpoint to the grimness in the novel.

There’s a scene early on in an inn. The barmaid’s brother, normally kept in back, has to bring a tray of food out to a group of soldiers sitting near the Syldoon. It’s obvious when he makes his appearance why his family normally secludes him—he is completely asymmetrical, half his features and limbs being horribly out of line with the rest, and he hunches and shuffles as he walks. One of the soldiers begins viciously mocking him, much to the merriment of the rest of his group.

While Arki is appalled by the soldiers’ behavior, the Syldoon are nonplussed and continue drinking. It’s only when the barmaid, Syrie, tries to defuse the situation and in turn gets kicked by the abusive soldier that Braylar steps in to give the bully the smack down (though, to be fair, not out of any altruistic impulse, but because he’s trying to win his way into her skirts). In this world, broken folk have an even harder go of it than in our own society—they are widely considered “grotesque”, and thing aren’t exactly PC. The prevalent attitude towards the boy is disgust, outright cruelty, or at best, apathy (and even Arki, empathetic and disturbed as he is, doesn’t dare stand up to soldiers, as they are secular authority in the land and he’s a bookish archivist).

Braylar himself is extraordinarily scarred, and while I don’t want to spoil anything by revealing why, I will only say that he bears more wounds than your average career soldier in a medievalish world. He might also be dealing with a curse that is pretty gosh darn debilitating. That, or he’s a complete loon, which of course would be no picnic either. He’s got some challenges, for sure.

But as far as damaged characters facing tough roads go, Lloi, the company’s scout, is the star of the show. In addition to being an ostracized member of a nomadic tribe (which marks her as doubly “Other” to all the Syldoon she rides with—first, for originating in the steppes to begin with, and second, for having done something to earn exile), she’s also had the fingers and thumb of her left hand amputated down to the last phalange. And again, I won’t spoil anything by revealing who did this to her or why, but needless to say, it was someone she loved and trusted. And, as if that weren’t enough, I also equipped her with a special supernatural gift that unfortunately brands her as something to be loathed or feared.

Admittedly, I’m a cruel bastard to most of my characters, but I didn’t stack the deck against Lloi just to pile on or for sadistic kicks. I decided to play against type a little here. I figured a character like this could easily be revenge-driven or reclusive, bitter or painfully introverted (and often is in a lot of fiction). I decided to take Lloi off in a completely different direction. She never considers herself a victim, and doesn’t harbor any hatred for the people who disfigured her or those who mock her. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not a flawless paragon by any stretch—her speech and behavior startles or mortifies Arki almost as much as the Syldoon—Lloi’s rough most of the way through, not just around the edges. But Arki also can’t help but admire her responses to all the adversity she faces, even as he’s amazed by it.

I wanted a character who deals with some extreme challenges—physical and otherwise—and doesn’t retreat or succumb. In fact, she’s sort of Zen about all the horrible stuff thrown her way, typically handling it with a gap-toothed smile or a shrug. She’s no Mary Sue, but she is steadfast, stalwart, and strong in the face of some pretty nasty adversity. That’s what I wanted to focus on and showcase. In some ways, she’s the heart of the novel, and certainly one of my favorite characters.


Scourge of the Betrayer is Jeff’s first book, and was released in May of 2012. The fact that it’s published by Night Shade Books says plenty in itself (Night Shade has basically back-to-back released some absolutely amazing authors and incredibly noteworthy books). You should also check it out because the book itself is incredible and well worth reading. You can read more about it on Goodreads or on Jeff’s website and you can buy it at all your usual places.

You can find Jeff on Twitter, Goodreads and his website.

4 Responses

  • Jeff Salyards swooped onto my radar from left field.

    Yeah, he did for me too. 😉

    And now I understand a bit better where Lloi and the serving boy came from (and Captain Killcoin, but that’s giving the game away). I did find it unusual to pluck that note so strikingly and so often, and now I understand why, given your family background.

    Thanks, Jeff!

  • Jeff Salyards

    Thanks, Paul. I am glad to hear I am at least a blip on the radar now. 😉

    I appreciate your comments about the story. Thanks!

  • Sarah,

    Many thanks for the lovely and thoughtful introduction to this piece.


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