This is a densely-written novel, whose rhythmic narrative is as much of an accomplishment as the convincing world-building; the latter detailed with such invention you forget it’s not, in fact real. Links to our realm – stupid attitudes towards refugees, the desperate politics of smaller countries who want to go their own way without some Big Brother corporate state backing them, the relativity of ethics – only serve to make the story more compelling. Marketed as grimdark, ‘Snakewood’ is actually more complicated than that, for all the matter-of-fact brutality of a gang of beat-up old soldiers who were once part of legendary mercenary crew, Kailen’s Twenty. For one thing, the Twenty are as much strategists, engineers, negotiators and chemists as they are fighters; forming a team able to adapt to any conflict with sufficient understanding that they often end up not having to fight at all.
There are several narrators, chief among them Gant, who with his colleague Shale are the main sword arms of Kailen’s Twenty. Gant is a great character; a professional soldier through and through whose awful acts are often carried out with as much regret as they are lethal efficiency. It is all just a job, one that will be done worse by lesser men. Gant makes no apologies for the life he has led, but equally he is no sadist or psychopath either, somehow retaining our empathy as simply being one of those men on whom a great many others rely to do the killing for them. He is funny as well, especially when his narrative is contrasted with that of the more esoteric Kailen.
Neither Gant or Shale is an arrogant man, they have seen and done too many dreadful things for that; indeed, towards the end when all they have is each other, you realise how much you have come to care about the two reprobates, not least because of the deep brotherly love they have for each other. Such is their worldliness, they don’t even get a kick out of being the hardest blokes in the tavern; that is for lesser men and boys, all of whom nonetheless end up regretting it when they start something.
Unique among fantasy novels, this one has no magic system as such; indeed, the word ‘magic’ isn’t used at all, although there are dark mutterings about ‘magists’ and even an encounter with one, the Tom Bombadil-like Lorom Haluim in a forest no one survives the journey through. The main sources of power – and here, perhaps, the grimdark element comes to the fore – are political, commercial or military supremacy. It is with the latter that the uncanny comes into play in the form of ‘fightbrews’, potions that give soldiers super-human strength, agility and even sight.
Battles are thus decided by who has the best chemists, or ‘drudhas’. Kailen, whose genius is as much to do with management and recruitment as it is tactical cunning, has managed to find two of the best in Ibsey and Kigan, who produce a brew called the Honour, which is so successful that in their prime the Twenty hold a pass against an entire invading army.
However, there are many downsides to the Honour. Drinking fightbrews will mark a solider for life: the chemicals react to the human body and dye the skin outlandish colours from the inside out. The mercenaries are thus unmistakable as such, and sometimes even resort to wearing makeup to cover it. There is a comedown afterwards, called ‘paying the colour’, which has all the joy of concentrated heroin withdrawal. Over time, using fightbrews damages the body sufficiently that part of Gant and Shale’s morning ritual involves putting on salves and potions to address the physical predations caused by years of usage, not that they would have it any other way. Worst, perhaps, is Kigan’s experimentation on prisoners to refine the products, a reality only gradually revealed. That the Twenty know about these experiments and not only do nothing about it but continue to benefit from the results is one of the things I mean by relativity of ethics.
As a result, the author walks something of a tightrope, which is addressed in part by the novel’s structure, which regularly changes narrator as well jumping back and forth as time. As in ‘Pulp Fiction’ we end up finding out about characters we know are already dead and sometimes question the point of a particular sequence as a result. Stick with it though, because the accumulation of detail matters, not least in the gradual revelation of back story. The other way the moral empathy dilemma is resolved is with the novel’s hook: someone is killing Kailen’s Twenty, one by one, fifteen years after they disbanded. Who is doing this, and why? For all their ruthless efficiency, one thing the mercenaries never did is let anyone down. Or did they?
We quickly discover that one of those responsible for the murders is the beautiful but psychopathic Galathia, who nurses a particular grudge against the mercenaries because of long-ago events at a place called Snakewood. What these events were and how they turned Galathia into what she is now form the hidden backbone of the novel. Galathia, through various ‘found’ or recorded documents, emerges as the third of the novel’s key narrators. It is a further strength of the book that the female characters are depicted with as much ruthlessness, determination and agency as the males. One of the Twenty is female and the armies are always depicted as fighting men and women. Only the lovely Araliah, Kailen’s wife, emerges with any grace although inevitably it does her little good.
For all Galathia’s delectable sadism, discovery of the killer so early feels slightly disappointing. You wonder why this juicy mystery has been resolved with most of the book still to go. Fear not. There is another killer after the Twenty, an assassin of such daunting skill he decimates agents, Galathia’s fearsomely efficient female fighters and even the legendary Fieldsmen.
The assassin’s story is the most powerful part of the novel, related with almost euphoric levels of intensity. It is really good fantasy writing and almost a novel in itself. Here again, the author plays with our sympathy before gradually turning things around once more with the calm focus of a scientist boiling a frog. The killer’s identity, his relationship to Galathia and the things they are both willing to do push the novel into new realms of horror, which is all the more upsetting for being completely understandable.
Their actions give two major twists towards the end the kind of bitter sweetness that informs much of the book. It’s the same with Gant, who spends much of the novel slowly dying after being shot at the beginning with a poisoned arrow. At one point, he looks out at a beautiful view, knowing he will never see it again.
‘Snakewood’ is an obsessed, obsessive book that rewards close reading, after which its well-turned colloquialisms will be ringing in your head for days. Not only that, but if these characters are as terrible as I spend most of the book thinking they are, then what was that strange prickling behind my eyes as I read the last line?