Review: Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1) by Sam Sykes


Sam Sykes returns with a new fantasy that introduces to an unforgettable outcast magician caught between two warring empires.

Among humans, none have power like mages. And among mages, none have will like Sal the Cacophony. Once revered, now vagrant, she walks a wasteland scarred by generations of magical warfare. The Scar, a land torn between powerful empires, is where rogue mages go to disappear, disgraced soldiers go to die and Sal went with a blade, a gun and a list of names she intended to use both on. But vengeance is a flame swift extinguished. Betrayed by those she trusted most, her magic torn from her and awaiting execution, Sal the Cacophony has one last tale to tell before they take her head. All she has left is her name, her story and the weapon she used to carved both.

Vengeance is its own reward.


It is with inexpressible grief that I must confess that this book was yet another disappointment.

The experience of reading this novel is rather cloudy in my memory, as it took me two weeks to finish it. I would often put it in the corner, the way one might lean a broom or umbrella when not using it, and pick up something more griping to read. The story spun a single night the length of many, and when I finally finished it, it was as though I were setting down a heavy weight—I felt light as a ghost.

At the outset of the novel, Sal the Cacophony is captured, stripped of her infamous weapon (a sentient, blood-soaked gun with whom she struck an obscure barter) and clapped into chains for crimes against the revolutionary government. While she awaits execution, Sal recounts her story—the story that defined her life—to an officer that could not be any more impervious to it. The memories thundered at Sal, and her mind leapt with images of destruction: Sal tells of the Scar, a city scorched away in pieces, leaving ragged holes rimmed in cinders, of turncoat mages allying to throw off the empress’s yoke, of revolutions igniting like a chain of firecrackers, of the part she played in the great machine of death during the war between the empire and the Revolution, and the seven names that caught in her skull, scouring out all thought. And now here she was, the onetime near deity, held taut in chains, now a pariah. Sal would happily ignite the whole world if only to roast marshmallows in the embers of those who betrayed her.

Sal runs with swift, clear rage, and her desire for revenge is a force as destructive as any Revolution weapon, and harder to end than the Empire. Sal is too steeped in the landscape of this nightmare to glimpse her loved ones, their faces twisted in anguish, trying to pull her back while she clung so resolutely to her revenge. But as Sal will come to learn, vengeance is a difficult thing to bear alone.

To have the ability to grasp, you need to be able to let things go. And the greater their meaning, the greater their power.

Seven Blades in Black bristles with imaginative flourishes, but they unfortunately don’t always stick. While the novel does eventually get its legs underneath it for a (somewhat) satisfying conclusion, it remains something of a tepid, noncommittal journey. And for a book about unforgettable grudges, it is sadly far too forgettable.

The plot, lucid yet leisurely, is the toughest part of Seven Blades in Black. On the one hand, the action is rather straight-forward so it would seemingly be a smooth, fast reading experience, but on the other hand, a large portion of the novel dwells too much on extended emotional monologues, gratuitous violence, and snaillike developments, so it becomes drab, dense and slow to maneuver through. There also aren’t many fixed points in this stirring landscape—or in Sal’s mercurial character—to cling doggedly onto and follow into the dark. This was bad enough but what had lowered my spirit still further is that, despite the intricacy of the worldbuilding, the novel still somehow feels uncluttered and understated. When I try to recall moments that are arresting enough to reverberate like a tolling bell, my mind slides away, like a fish that would not be caught.

Brilliant but brittle as badly tempered iron, fiery but sometimes obnoxious, dauntless but lacking in crucial wisdom, Sal the Cacophony is an engaging, insightful narrator capable of crafty—sometimes even poetic—feats of observation, but her destructive shenanigans soon begin to wear thin. Sal’s brassy delivery is sometimes downright leaden, and the hours often pass in a dreadful streaky blur of impassive, deadpan angst which—almost inexorably—mutates into a heel-dragging burden. There’s nothing too disagreeable about angst-ridden stories, but they can tread on overwhelming lest the author sets bounds upon it. It makes sense that Seven Blades in Black is a grim novel, but it’s not a very dynamic one, either. Some complications that are hurled Sal’s way feel schematic and forced rather than horrific. The story is also unrelentingly bitter and locked in existential-crisis mode, and there’s only so much acerbic bleakness that any book, even this one, can take before it lapses into languid melodrama.

Though the novel does try to counterbalance that sumptuous darkness with bawdy humor and a dose of absurdism mixed with sly philosophical musings (even poking fun at Sal’s wordy tendencies), and eventually spins all that horror into thought-provoking notions about free will, salvation and the ghosts we both battle and become—at which point, the book finally begins to resonate—I’m not sure it’s enough to forgive.

The main narrative is a lengthy flashback recounting the story of Sal the Cacophony before her arrest. The shifts between past and present are clever, and I admit that the sense of intrigue that rose in me when I first started this book was reluctant to fade as I felt my own questions about Sal’s past burgeoning within me. And after the introduction of a few late-arriving characters, some old spark of that anticipation flared in me, trying to relight. Unfortunately, it was quickly dismissed by the fact that most of these new characters make brief appearances and they’re either promptly killed off or appear so infrequently that they’re stuck at being two-dimensional; not to mention, the ultimate reveal felt more glib than exciting, and I was not impressed.

Cavric Proud’s character, in particular, was interesting. Cavric is a fresh-faced officer of the Revolutionary, one of the few who still believed in good deeds and defense of the small. He’d followed orders his entire life and he will eventually become the person giving them—just one identical cog swapped out for another to keep the Revolution’s machinery running the exact same way it had for years. But it’s not until Cavric stands upon the smoking ash-heap of war that he begins to see into the cracks of the cause he’d joined. “The loudest sound in the world,” says Sal when the true face of the war slips into Cavric like a stone, sinking to the bottom, “is a man of faith beginning to doubt.” Liette, a brilliant Freemaker, is another character I wish got to step wholly into the page instead of merely being relegated to the role of “Sal’s lover”, trying and failing to fix her hurts, fix her, their relationship always fraying to the point of breaking, to the point of one of them snipping the thread between them clean in half, deciding to never look back. I really hope she takes on a bigger role in future installments.

As a first-person narrator, Sal the Cacophony is a character that…disintegrates under analysis. Let’s be honest. Sal is an asshole. An appealing asshole (mostly), but definitely an asshole. Sal’s world has very small horizons. She can see clearly enough to pull a fast one on someone, but she isn’t capable to see past the immediate repercussions. She also believes herself to be beyond redemption, broken beyond repair, like a drowning man—the more you struggled to save them, the harder they fought. She kept the jagged edge of her affection sharp, a blade, so that those near her never knew how to handle it without cutting themselves. Sal is ungovernable, flawlessly self-serving, resentful, and sly. Her anger is mad-dog vicious, and never yields to explanation or prediction, and her selfish confidence—while refreshingly different—tends to be repellent when it visibly ruins other people’s lives. I didn’t really warm up to her character, and all the aforementioned made rooting for her very difficult.

“No one ever gets the death they want,” I replied. “Just the one they deserve.”

There’s a faint quicksilver trace of curiosity still inside me to find out where Cavric and Liette’s journeys lead them, but I honestly don’t know if it’s enough to tempt me to continue with this series.

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