Brutal is the debut novel from James Alderdice, but it’s not really a debut. Alderdice is the pen name of David J. West. David is no relation to me, but he’s also no stranger to those of you who have been following this site for a while.
David has been writing a lot of weird westerns lately, so he decided as a branding exercise to use a different name on this epic fantasy novel. It’s one of the best things I’ve read by him.
Take some Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, A Fistful of Dollars, and various other influences (which the author describes here), and you’ve got a bloody, gritty tale of a stranger who comes to town to clean up.
A man known only as the Sellsword comes to the town of Aldreth, which the locals have started calling All Death. He’s there to clean things up, and there’s a lot to clean up. There are two warring wizards, a cult dedicated to a dark goddess, corrupt city guards, and a widowed duchess who has a reputation for stepping out on her recently deceased husband. Of course the Sellsword gets involved with her.
For a while, I thought the Sellsword wasn’t particularly brutal, at least not as brutal as he came off in the opening chapters. For someone who has come to kick butt and take names, he has moments of unusual compassion. And his reasons for showing up and doing what he does aren’t explained initially. He just arrives and brings trouble with him. By the time I got to the end of the book, his behavior and characterization made sense.
Aldreth is a mining town, but the mines have pretty much played out. The former Duke brought in a wizard to transmute the rock to iron, because it’s easier than transmuting things to gold. Then the wizard’s apprentice rebelled. They spend more time trying to kill each other than anything else. Aldreth used to be one of the most significant towns in the kingdom, but in addition to the failing mines, the kingdom has fallen to a barbarian conqueror from the north, which makes everyone nervous. Aldreth is a powder keg waiting to explode, and the Sellsword has just lit a match.
There is more going on here than is apparent on the surface. There’s also a very high body count. The action hardly ever stops. There are more double crosses than in a Donald Westlake/Richard Stark Parker novel. In short, it was a lot of fun.
There’s a twist at the end of the novel, one I should have seen coming. I didn’t, but in hindsight, the clues were there. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Sellsword in the future.