Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes
Updated: Apr 7
Let me preface this by saying this is the first Sam Sykes book I’ve read, but it’s definitely not going to be the last. Seven Blades in Black is equal parts fun, super-violent romp, revenge story and mystery, which is a fantastic combination. Set in a fresh, interesting fantasy world with a deep history full of war and deception, the whole story is rich with detail that won’t bore you.
Sal the Cacophony
Sal is who the story is all about. It’s told to us as she tells it to her jailer on the night of her execution. And let me just warn the squeamish, she is not a lady about it.
Sal belongs to a special class of people called Vagrants. The long and the short of that is, these are incredibly powerful, dangerous mages who abdicated their duties to the Empire and are now out in the world, running amok. Within the first few chapters we get to hear about her facing down Daiga, a graspmage, who uses his power to move inanimate objects. It is an epic fight, in which we learn that for mages, power comes with a price. I’ll talk about that more in a minute.
Anyway, Sal is my favorite kind of heroine. She’s flawed, she’s a bad ass and she’s just kind of a lovable asshole in the best sense. She drinks, she swears, she rolls around in bed with whoever interests her, and does a lot of underhanded stuff, hurting some people she knows she shouldn’t. And I think she’s addicted to operas… But, she’s seen some shit, and while she can be awful, there is darker evil out there that needs a bullet in it.
Aided by the Cacophony, a terrifying magical gun that shoots magic bullets with names like Hoarfrost and Hellfire, Sal is working through a revenge list ala Kill Bill, working up the leader, Vraki the Gate. Luckily, Vraki seems to have cooked up a world-shaking evil plot, so Sal has an excuse for her bloodshed.
The Magic System
The magic in this world makes for some seriously awesome fights. There are mages who can control the weather, there are mages who can create hallucinations, change their forms, or are nearly indestructible. But it all comes at a price, which is called the barter. And mages trade with a being they call The Lady Merchant. The price of their power is different, depending on their gift. Daiga, the graspmage we meet in the early part of the book, sacrifices his memories to move things via magic. The greater the magic, the dearer the barter.
Magic is also the reason behind what is essentially a never-ending civil war between the Empire and the Revolution. On the side of the Empire, mages. On the side of the Revolution, non-magical people (or nulls as the mages call them) armed with guns and machines powered by ancient and mysterious magical artifacts. This civil war forms the backdrop and also some massive obstacles for Sal in her quest for revenge.
So, if you’re looking for healthy, stead-fast relationships, this is not the book for you… Sal is a living train wreck when it comes to interpersonal relationships, both in her past and in her present. Her two travelling companions (not counting Congeniality, who is a bird) both experience this first-hand. Liette is an old friend and lover who has put up with Sal again and again, much to Sal’s massive guilt. Their relationship is deep and interesting and more than a little sad. Cavric is a wide-eyed young man from the Revolution, maybe a little naive, who has no romantic interest in Sal whatsoever, but still gets caught up in her business and the pain she brings just about everyone in her life.
She’s like a self-aware James Bond in this way, hurting just about every life she touches, but also feeling bad about it.
The Story Unfolds Gradually
Another aspect of Seven Blades I really enjoyed was how it was masterfully unfolded. As we are told the story chronologically, secrets are revealed that put pieces of the past together and make the current situation clearer and clearer. It’s one of those stories where as it’s told the present situation shifts when we gain the perspective of the past. Think a story like The Usual Suspects, where the reader is putting together the truth as the detective is, but, is the truth actually the truth? I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it is a lot of fun. Can’t help but love untrustworthy narrators.
If you're looking for a book that's funny, action-packed and full of colorful (albeit somewhat horrible) characters, monsters, fighting and magic, I highly, highly recommend this one.
What it's like:
My Favorite Quote:
I know what you’re thinking. “Gosh, she really ought to wear armor or something, given the rate at which she gets injured.” To which I have two answers. The first being: Fuck you, I look fabulous.
Sykes, Sam. Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires) (Kindle Locations 5347-5349). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
Bechdel Test: Pass