Like a blindfolded mugger that’s been spun around several times and pointed in the wrong direction, The Black Guard , the first in AJ Smith’s meticulously planned Long War series, takes a while to grab you.
After Ro Canarn is brutally sacked by colourful warrior clerics, Lord Bromvy and his sister Bronwyn flee the broken city, having been declared outlaw and dubbed “Black Guard”. The first eight chapters jump into the heads of eight different characters, from young squire Randall of Darkwald to Magnus Forkbeard Ragnarsson, who’s as hulking and Viking-like as you might suspect.
George RR Martin uses the same POV approach, and while it’s certainly effective, the downside is that the plot flows at the sweet and syrupy speed of treacle. The book is exposition-heavy, as many first novels are, but not in a bad way. Thanks to the author’s role-playing background, the novel’s world feels well thought out. Devised over 12 years, it’s been tried and tested by many a dice-roller.
Fine detail isn’t always enough, however, and there are elements of The Black Guard that feel all-too-familiar - the manipulative enchantress, the roguish and Persian-esque prince, the bearskin-clad Vikings (in-all-but name). That said, story is king, and the story here grows to be more interesting and enticing than you might expect, so much so that it deftly sidesteps fantasy cliché and thrusts you towards the next instalment.
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