Blood and Iron – Jon Sprunk

About the Book

Set in a richly-imagined world, this action-heavy fantasy epic and series opener is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus.

It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand.

Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.

428 pages (paperback)
Published on March 11, 2014
Published by Pyr
Author’s webpage

This book was provided for me to review by the publisher.

It seems like just yesterday Jon Sprunk finished his debut series Shadow Saga. It seems like just yesterday I devoured that series. Now the man is at it again, starting another series that is landslides away from his first in both tone and content. It’s that switch in gears that might throw some Sprunk fans through a loop. While I tend to enjoy when authors spread their wings and diversify a bit, some readers expecting the Shadow Saga tone will probably be a little confused. This isn’t Shadow Saga. Don’t go into it expecting it to similar to that one.

The truth is, I have Sprunk pinned as an author who writes certain types of books (not bad books, mind you, but when I think of Sprunk, I mentally stick him around Brent Weeks Night Angel trilogy, not near GRRM). Here Sprunk is, taking a chance and writing something more GRRM than Brent Weeks, and his fans will either love it or hate it. He runs that risk, and while I eat that sort of thing up, plenty of the fans he’s gained from his earlier trilogy will probably lament the difference of tone from Shadow Saga. And plenty of other readers will become his fans purely because of the difference in tone. Funny how that works.

Now that that warning is out of the way, lets talk about the book.

Blood and Iron starts out with a guy on a ship, which generally turns me off almost instantly. However, this guy isn’t on this ship for very long. Soon there is a storm. All hell breaks loose, and said guy (Horace) finds himself in a foreign land, with foreign people, a strange culture, and a language he doesn’t understand. The land he finds himself on is ripe for war, rebellion, and all of those delicious political things that make epic fantasy so fantastically epic.

Blood and Iron is told from four main perspectives, two men and two women (Queen Byleth and her handmaiden Alyra). Oddly enough, I felt that the women were the best developed, had the most depth, and were more interesting characters. They had distinctly individual voices, and independent drives and desires. Intermixed in all of this strong womanhood-ness is a fantastic culture which, at times, can be limiting to the those of the female sex, and plenty of politics they may wade through. I found both of these characters, the queen and her handmaid, to be  very charismatic and compelling in the context with which Sprunk created them.

On the other side, you have two men. Horace, an ex soldier and a stranger in a strange land, and Jirom, a slave who is basically a gladiator. While these two characters give the landscape, politics, and turmoil of the time an interesting viewpoint and a fantastically diverse perspective, they didn’t quite pull me in as much as the two women did. Horace is in many ways cookie-cutter. He’s an ex-soldier, men want to be him and women want to be with him. Jirom has the potential to be a fascinating character, but he felt very back-seat most of the time. That being said, both of these characters, like the women I mentioned above, have incredibly unique and compelling pasts that really add nice color to the tapstry that Sprunk is weaving.

Blood and Iron has a slow-ish start, but thankfully you’ll get any lag out of the way as soon as you pass that first hurdle. In fact, the rest of the book moves incredibly fast, considering the depth and the scope of the plot and world that Sprunk has created. There is plenty of battles, sex, violence, and some terrible human beings thrown into the mix. Sprunk does a good job at slowly bringing everything to a rolling boil, and keeping you guessing while he does it. The ending ties plenty of loose ends up, but it leaves a surprising amount hanging. Sprunk left all of his characters at interesting points where they can either hurt or help each other, and readers won’t know which way things will go until the next book in the series.

As I mentioned above, this book is epic in scope and breadth, and one of the reasons why is because of the world Sprunk has created – a sort of Egyptian-esque place that is similar enough to cultures we have all learned about for us to give this land true color and understanding, but different enough to enchant us. Blood and Iron has a heavy focus on magic, and readers will learn a lot about this magic as the characters do. But that’s not the true glory of Blood and Iron. What I truly enjoyed about this book was how incredibly detailed Sprunk was with his world building. This isn’t a book about politics, like so many others. Sprunk adds in a complex culture and isn’t afraid to show it’s good and bad points, religious strife, political issues, characters and throws it all into a vivid landscape that seems so absolutely real I can almost see, feel, and smell it all.

All in all, it sounds like this book just worked for me, and in a lot of ways it did, but sometimes I felt like the smaller parts overwhelmed the story as a whole. The start was a little slow, and felt a little longer than it needed to be, and while the characters were fantastic, the men lacked a little something-something that the women had, and I’m still not exactly sure what the point of Jirom is, but I hold faith that all will be made clear in the future.

The truth is, I have to cut Sprunk some slack here. He’s started one hell of an epic series, the kind of epic that could rival any other epic out there in scope, magnitude, and complexity, and he started it with a book that really isn’t too incredibly long (considering the length of some epics). There’s only so many pages you can use to start a series like this. Due to that, he’s pushed a ton of stuff into one book. It’s actually quite impressive to see how much he packed into Blood and Iron, and just how well he did it, considering everything.

The final verdict? I’m a little torn on this one. I honestly enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I like the direction it is going. I enjoyed about half of the characters a lot more than I thought I would, one character less than I expected, and I can’t quite understand another one. The world is what sold me. Complex and real, vibrant and believable, and all of the magic, religious strife, and politics thrown in were just fantastic. The start is slow, but after that the book itself takes off. It’s a lot of fun, and very thoughtful and diverse.

When I really think about it, I realize that my complaints with Blood and Iron aren’t about the book as a whole, but the smaller parts of the book itself. Should that hold you back from reading it? No. Sprunk has started a series that promises to rival many other epic fantasy series, and has the ability to hook a lot of readers that might not anticipate being hooked. Deep, dark, violent, and full of complex politics and an even more complex culture, Blood and Iron has something for everyone.


4/5 stars

4 Responses

  • My experience with the slowness and the not-quite-perfect “leap” up to Epic fantasy was similar, Sarah.

    I was surprised to learn, though, that Jon had conceived of this story before he wrote the Shadow Saga, and only in the writing of it realized it was set in the same world.

  • I really liked the queen as a character in this one. The rest I could take or leave. I enjoyed it enough to see if it can improve on itself next round, but I wasn’t a huge fan.

    • The queen really worked for me. I loved her, and thought she was a brilliant character. I’m anxious to see where Sprunk takes the series next. I think I liked this book more than you did… with reservations.

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