It is two hundred years since the deity known as the Absolved went mad and destroyed the Kingdom of Alnachim, transforming it into the Execration, a blasted wasteland filled with nameless terrors. For decades, desperate souls have made pilgrimage to the centre of this cursed land to seek the Mad God’s favour, their fate always unknown.
Now a veteran warrior known only as Pilgrim, armed with a fabled blade inhabited by the soul of a taunting demon, must join with six others to make the last journey to the heart of the Execration. Allied with a youthful priest, a beast-charmer, a duplicitous scholar, an effete actor and two exiled lovers, Pilgrim must survive madness, malevolent spirits, unnatural monsters and the ever-present risk of treachery, all so that the Mad God might hear his prayer and, perhaps, grant redemption. But can sins such as his ever be forgiven?
A Pilgrimage of Swords is a novella and the first in the Seven Swords series. I find it very interesting the way author Anthony Ryan is taking on this series by releasing as a set of novellas instead of a set of full-scale books. It feels very episodic, which I enjoy. Pilgrimage is more or less an introduction to the series, which I categorize as adventure fantasy meets grimdark. The characters in this book are going on a quest, and it also contains elements of violence and dark elements. This was an interesting and fun combination.
One of the aspects of this book that sets it apart for me is the way Ryan tackles the novella aspect. Being a short story, it can be hard to pull off everything you want as a writer while also leaving the reader feeling satisfied. There are just not enough pages for it all. But, Ryan does a great job of that while throwing a few fantasy standards to the wind. There is not much world building, as this story focuses solely on the one quest: find the Mad God (who happens to inhabit the center of a trap-riddled cave) and a prayer will be granted. Or so the fable says. That is all you need to know about this world, as it is an engrossing adventure that kept me on my toes the whole time. There is no lead-up, here, either. The reader comes in mid-conversation between Seeker and Pilgrim and it just… goes. No fuss, no muss in this story. Any superfluous detail, item, or event is thrown out. All that is left is the core of the narrative, a fun and intriguing adventure that kept me in the story from beginning to end.
In a book like this the way the characters are drawn up is really important, as well. One of the most important aspects of a story is how the readers connect with the characters, and in a novella that can be difficult to achieve. Ryan really does the job in Pilgrimage, though, but not by traditional means. Just as with the world building, traditional character building is chopped, for the most part – or, at least it is not done in a whole-scale, grandiose way. We learn about the characters subtly, through their actions and dialogue while they complete their quest. They begin their journey by meeting up at the mouth of the cave to find the Mad King, each with their own motivation for doing so. Each also possesses their own skillset, which, in my opinion, is the core of an adventure: a crew of warriors, each with differing abilities, attempting to complete a quest. Going through this journey felt very video game-like to me, as they faced a series of tests and traps. And we do get to know the characters along the way, it is just built in to action. Their interactions (or non-interactions – remember, they just met!) along with the details of the quest creates a lot of tension, which is what drives the story for me.
Back to my big question: can Anthony Ryan pull off an adventure story like this in so few pages? It worked for me. Ryan’s writing-style pulls it off, getting so much out of so little. I definitely recommend A Pilgrimage of Swords for fans of fantasy and am very much anticipating Book 2 (and the next episode) of the series, The Kraken’s Tooth. Good thing I will not have to wait long, as I have an ARC waiting for me. On to the next…