The Hiss of the Blade (Celestial Ways Saga: Book 1) by Richard Writhen. An independently published novella, originally released January, 2017. Approx. 185 pages.
The Hiss of the Blade is the opening novella in a projected trilogy by self-published author and personal friend Richard Writhen. The interesting thing is; it is not only part of its own trilogy, but it was released as part of a "trilogy" of novellas which take place on the fictional planet of Cedron (his other two novellas, A Host of Ills and A Kicked Cur, transpire over different time periods). Further, Writhen is carving out a name for himself by writing in a genre which he terms "gothdark"- the simple take being grimdark with gothic tones. The end result is very satisfying; giving us a dark, moody tale which posits high stakes for all those involved.
Before getting into the review proper; here's a look at the current blurb (note: I had gotten the original paperback, and the blurb on that one was a bit more vague):
"Two petty mercenaries are falsely accused of switching sides in a feud between two rich and powerful magnates; an ex-miner on the run from a murder charge becomes a reaver and embroiled in a romance; an industrial lieutenant is recruited to help capture a serial killer and an entire city is in danger of being ensorcelled by an ancient monk."
That is a fairly accurate synopsis for what transpires in THotB. Part of the allure of the rich tale is that Writhen weaves seemingly unrelated threads and story lines into a central convergence point. The aforementioned mercenaries, for example, are tasked with hunting the rogue ex-miner. The story of the serial killer; which bookends the novella, and provides some of the best (and most grotesque) content, holds portents for future installments. And, everything that transpires leads back to the two magnates: a pair of union heavies (one controlling the mining industry, and the other the dairy/agriculture channels) whose game of perennial one upmanship generates waves which flood over the entire region.
Since this is a novella, too much detail leads to issues with spoilers. It's better to focus on the elements involved, especially since Writhen has a very unique authorial style.
Writhen writes in a style which he has termed as "gothdark"; which is to say that it contains elements of gothic and grimdark. The result of this genre copulation is prose which is dark, rich, and evocative. Even when the action is at its most brutal, or the most base slang words are being slung, there is something inherently poetic about the delivery; as if the entirety of the narrative is one of the baroque paintings used for the cover come to life.
Seeing as though he packed a ton of characters, as well as a multitude of story lines, into a compact page count, I also need to laud Writhen on being able to wrangle the maximum amount of detail out of the least amount of words. Honestly; there is no lack of vivid imagery throughout THotB.
The action throughout is top-notch as well. The opening scene; focusing on the serial killer at work, is orchestrated in a manner both disturbing and brutal. There are duels and fisticuffs throughout the story as well; and in each instance the events are composed in a manner both bone-crushing and balletic.
And, finally, there is the lore. One would be hard-pressed to generate a successful fantasy series without the underpinning of an intriguing backdrop. The reader gets dropped straight into THotB without preamble or fancy maps; and from there they are immediately swept up in the action. As the story progresses, however, details are revealed. We learn the basic geography, then the history, religions, etc. The best part is that it is all well-thought out, detailed, and believable.
It's laudable that Writhen is able to pack so much mythology, so many events, and so many distinct characters into a tome that is under 200 pages. In fact; if there is anything that works against the book; it's that there isn't enough room for each character to shine. Meaning; each character could carry the novella as a sole protagonist, but in the situation here they work as a fine ensemble.
So, we can look forward to the further development of these characters in Book 2.. Well, for those of the characters that made it through this installment, at least.
With a classically beautiful cover, and a name derived from the poem "The Sewing Bird" by Fitz-James O'Brien, The Hiss of the Blade delivers a deep and unique experience. Looking forward to continuing this series.