Come for the fights, stay for the heartbreak
Infamous bounty hunter Bitter Sweet has led his crew of like-minded miscreants for nearly three decades. They can track and capture any man or woman in the known world…for a price. But Sweet is tired. Decades of pursuing the lowest reaches that humanity has to offer have taken their toll. The grime, the lies, the danger, the death. He’s sick of it all.
But it’s the only business he knows, and business is good in the aftermath of a long and bloody war. The unstoppable armies of the Vol Empire have conquered Pratia, obliterating all opposition and occupying the kingdom’s cities as they establish a brutal new order. The Pratian king is slain in the carnage, but his son—the Crown Prince and sole heir to the throne—has vanished.
Eager to tie up the loose ends, the new Vol rulers turn to those who know the land and its people the best. Bounty hunters.
Against his better instincts, Sweet accepts the contract and sets out in search of the fugitive Crown Prince. But his crew are not alone in the hunt. Danger rides with them every step of the way. Rival gangs, Vol soldiers, deadly trackers and dark magickers are all pursuing the heir to Pratia, too.
Soon Sweet and his crew have a choice to make, hunt or be hunted?
There has been a proud tradition in recent years of stories about a tight-knit crew of rogues – whether bounty hunters, criminals or mercenaries – who, despite their cut-throat exteriors, aren’t quite as bad as they seem. These rogues, who invariably inhabit a grim, and grimdark world, will find themselves on a quest that will most likely turn into one of a kingdom-saving nature and force them to work for something greater than themselves.
This “rogues with heart on a quest” is a tried and tested formula that has found great success in modern fantasies by the likes of David Wragg, Nicholas Eames, M J Kuhn and Christopher Buehlman, to name but a few. And you know what? I love it. I can’t get enough of it. I inject it into my veins: do not pass go, go straight to sub-genre heaven.
Enter debut author Steve Pannett. It’s pretty clear that he’s not reinventing the wheel with this “bounty hunter with a heart” tale. We have Bitter Sweet (what a name!) the bounty hunter, whose crew have spent years burnishing their reputation for getting the job done in the fairly standard grim medieval kingdom of Pratia. They don’t seem particularly close this crew, but they trust each other to do what they need to. When a brutally militarily efficient neighbouring country, who closely resemble the Roman Empire, invade Pratia, they are given a new job: hunt down the Pratian Prince who is trying to escape his newly invaded homeland to his neighbour to begin the resistance.
What complicates this is that the job has also gone to others, including another crew with a psychotic leader, deadly magickers (i.e. sorcerers), a bunch of soldiers and a crew led by a semi-invincible armour-plated monster warrior. So we get the classic race-against-time narrative: to make the biggest payday of their lives and retire, they must beat all these other crews to the prince before he escapes the kingdom.
But while that storyline is hardly innovative, frankly it doesn’t matter. Because Pannett is telling one of the most tense, heart-breaking and compelling stories of the year. It’s a classic example of how good solid story-writing, fantastic set pieces and minimal but strong character detail can elevate a standard plot into something really special.
In some ways, this is a companion piece to David Wragg’s The Hunters, out earlier this year, which featured a bunch of various crews chasing a bounty. But while that was, purposefully, a non-stop conveyer belt of chase sequences and actions set pieces barely punctuated by character moments, Pannett takes the opposite approach here. He has long, tense sequences where the crew are simply stalking their prey, knowing at any moment one of their competitors could ambush them. This is prime tension building; terrific stuff. One scene in particular – a genuinely terrifying creep through a dark camp full of unidentified ambushers lying in wait – had me strung out like an overtuned guitar string.
But when the inevitable fights break out, my word they are brutal, edge of your seat stuff. Probably the best I’ve read this year, in fact. One sequence involving an unfortunate encounter with a bear is a heart-pounding fight, while another involving a close encounter in a narrow passageway with ruthless trained warriors and a hulk in armour plating will make you feel so tense that you could be used as a suspension bridge afterwards. Pannet has this way of describing vicious combat that is just remarkable. Take a look at this beauty:
Sweet saw a glint of something coming his way and scrambled backwards for the second time in as many moments. Thond’s second axe came hurtling through the air, right through the space Sweet had previously been occupying. Sweet reckoned the force of the blow would’ve opened him up from shoulder to groin, such was the strength of the big, armoured Wyn. The attack left an opening though and Sweet stabbed back with his own sword, but Thond was sickeningly fast and spun on one heel, bringing up one of his axes to deflect the blow. Sweet had to cling onto his sword to stop it from flying out of his grip. The force of Thond’s parry sent vibrations running up his arm all the way to his teeth. Then Sweet was backing away again, desperately trying to avoid the deadly arcs of Thond’s swinging axes.
What of the character building? That’s the funny thing: Pannett doesn’t build character the usual way, through long dialogue backstory between the crew. In fact, at first, they all seem a bit bland and lifeless. All except the great character of Bitter Sweet, who we spend most of the story with, and who is constantly doubting this new quest, doubting the hardness he’s instilled in the crew; a cutthroat rogue having an identity crisis before our eyes.
But as for the other characters, Pannett uses small moments to slowly make you care for them. One hulking member of the crew suddenly espouses a passion to retire to a farm. Another, a mysterious warrior with almost supernatural tracking skills, barely says a word, but oozes “fan favourite”. Little by little, you start to care for them, and when – and given the genre, this cannot count as a spoiler – some of them go to the great bounty hunter paddock in the sky – it honestly hits you hard. There’s one death that, despite literally no words being said, approaches Sean Bean/Boromir devastation levels. It’s brilliant writing.
Ultimately, there is almost nothing original about this story, but there doesn’t need to be. Pannett has crafted a ruthlessly efficient storyline that shocks with its twists and wows with its set pieces and gives you characters that, while it might take a while, eventually you come to care for and mourn for in ways that will surprise you. It’s a triumph of good story writing, and I relished every second of it. Fantastic stuff.