Morally dubious mercenaries are a staple of grimdark fantasy and, as much as I love the trope, it can be quite difficult to bring a fresh spin to it. But Adrian Selby’s debut novel SNAKEWOOD is a very original take on an established trope. It tells the story of Kailen’s Twenty, a famous mercenary company now long disbanded but who, in their day, were unrivalled in their military cunning and prowess. But now their glory days are behind them, whispers abound of a betrayal at the outpost town of Snakewood and someone is methodically hunting down the ex-members of Kailen’s Twenty and killing them off, one by one. That premise was an instant buy-in for me. Grimdark mercenary story meets unknown killer with a vendetta murder mystery? Heck yes!
Selby took daringly bold decisions with this book from the get go. It’s not told as a traditional narrative, but as a collection of letters and statements from the various players involved in the story, collated by a scholar trying to piece together the mystery of what exactly went down in Snakewood. It took me a little while to settle into this narrative style, but once I found my groove I was hooked on the story. The narrative is necessarily disjointed because of the nature of how it’s compiled and we get statements from Gant, a member of the Twenty who becomes aware someone is hunting his ex-comrades and sets out to warn them with his bestest friend (and possibly lover, I’m not entirely sure) Shale, also an ex-member of the Twenty. We get intermittent input from Kailen himself, now in hiding; we get accounts from Galathia, a princess-in-exile with her own axe to grind with Kailen’s Twenty and finally the words of an amnesiac drudha slave who knows himself only as Sand.
What is a drudha? I hear you ask. Well my friends! This is the unique selling point of Adrian Selby’s world, a world where the success of mercenaries and soldiers depends as much on the quality of their drudha’s brews as it does on their ability with a blade. Drudhas are a dangerous combination of botanist and alchemist. Their knowledge of plants and ingredients and the various ways they can be mixed into fightbrews can make or break a battle. The implications of what is essentially small scale medieval-era biological warfare brings a whole new angle to the action and the fight scenes as combatants throw down smoke bombs made of limestone powder and paste their blades with fast-acting poisons that make the smallest of cuts potentially fatal wounds. Not only does it bring life and flair to the fight scenes though, the importance of the ingredients required to mix the brews saturates every aspect of the worldbuilding, as a complex web of contested and dangerous trade routes operate between the various provinces and around them have sprung up a number of militarised merchant companies who both protect and trade along these routes. The most prominent of these is an organisation called The Post. The Post operates as something akin to The East India Company, a sort of privatised military trading company that has also established themselves as part of the governmental structure. Galathia actually hires a middle-ranking Post soldier, Marschal Laun, and her crew as part of her attempt to settle her own score with Kailen’s Twenty and it’s through her that we get to see a lot of the factional divisions and petty power struggles among the various sections of The Post play out, which were some of my favourite parts of this story.
The character work is grimdark excellence. I think at the heart of good grimdark are characters who aren’t straightforwardly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but people whose motivations you can understand even when their behaviour makes you uncomfortable, or people you can root for in certain situations even though you know they’ve done bad things. Gant and Shale were the ones I rooted for the most; their driving goal throughout the story is to save the lives of their friends (and they go through hell and high water to do it), yet it was always there in the back of my mind that they and the people they’re trying to save aren’t exactly great people. And yet when you see things from Gant’s perspective and the the lengths he and Shale go to to help their friends, you absolutely side with them. Other characters are more ambiguous. Sand goes through some horrific stuff; his chapters waking up having found himself sold into slavery are some of the most harrowing and brutal chapters of the book and I was definitely cheering for him to do whatever was necessary to escape. And yet as things developed I found myself questioning whether I really did root for Sand – he ain’t exactly an angel. Selby manipulated me very well as a reader and I always appreciate when a writer is capable of presenting you with one side of a story and then making you question everything when shown another angle; it’s a particularly good skill when writing grimdark characters and Selby nailed it in Snakewood. As a final addendum under the subheading of ‘character’, I just want to applaud Selby for how unique each character’s voice is in this book. Especially the more rough and ready characters like Gant and Valdir, who speak in a vernacular very similar to some areas of the UK that aren’t upper middle class London. As a working class kid from a council estate in Durham, I appreciated that a lot. I see you editors, when you Americanise British words and slang to make it more palatable to our friends across the pond (or even just middle class British people if we’re being honest).
Final thoughts; I’d def recommend this to any grimdark fan and anyone interested in a good, slow burn fantasy mystery with stylish and original action scenes, forest skirmishes and jailbreaks! Just make sure to mentally prepare for the non-traditional story structure, as I think if I was prepared for that beforehand I would have settled into it a lot quicker and had more time immersed in the story itself. A wonderfully bold debut book this, I’m looking forward to reading his newer releases Winter Road and Brother Red!
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