The thought that springs to mind after finishing Blood and Iron is disappointing. It really is a shame that such a well written novel – endowed with all the attributes necessary for it to be an epic fantasy "must read" – allowed a familiar fantasy trope to derail such a promising story. Unfortunately, Jon Sprunk clung too tightly to the familiar "powerless to powerful" story line, and so instead of Blood and Iron ascending to the ranks of epic fantasy masterpiece it bottomed out at "Just Okay."
The hero of Mr. Sprunk’s novel is one Horace, a simple craftsman from the west. Once upon a time, Horace was a happily married man with a beloved child, content with his life and filled with dreams for the future, but then fate intervened as the plague appeared in his home city! Oh, he desperately tried to escape, to save himself and his loved ones from the gapping maw of death, but no one can outrun the invisible claws of plague, and so in a twinkling of an eye, Horace found everything worth living for ripped from his hands. He was left a broken man, filled with self loathing for having survived when his beloved wife and child died before his eyes. All he longed for was the comforting release of death, and to find it, Horace joined the great military crusade of west against east, certain that among the blood and carnage of the battle fields his final destiny awaited.
But fate has something other than death in store for our hero, and before Horace can even reach the war, a great storm destroys the ship he is traveling upon. Rejoicing in his watery demise, Horace is shocked when he awakes to discover that he has survived his shipwreck, having been found and nurtured back to health by the very easterners he had been sent to kill and enslave. Unfortunately, he also finds that his rescuers’ motive were less than altruistic and that now he is their slave; a piece of property which they quickly sell to a traveling slave master, who shackles Horace to his other captives and marches them all off to be sold at the slave markets across the desert.
It is during this trek that fate intervenes in Horace’s life yet again, for he meets and befriends a fellow slave and former gladiator named Jirom. The two almost instantly overcome any distrust or cultural obstacles to become the truest of friends. And when a magical, sand storm threatens to kill him and his new friend, Horace inadvertently unlocks a great magical power that he did not know that he even possessed; a magical power that is so strong, so wild that the slave master himself looks on in amazement as the untrained Horace rises up to dispel the storm with but a thought and a raising of his hand!
An outstanding act of bravery. One that not only saves Horace, Jirom and their fellow slaves from certain death but also changes our heroes destiny, for soon he is told that in the east sorcerers are revered and are under no circumstances slaves! So by his single, unconscious magical act, Horace has freed himself from bondage and become a person deserving of honor and respect – even from his former slave master.
From here, our despondent widower finds himself transported to the royal court, where he immediately becomes a figure of titillating speculation, as all the powers that be wish a piece of Horace. Soon, the spinning webs of political intrigue have surrounded our unsuspecting westerner, and he must attempt to distinguish which of his new "friends" wish to kill him, use him, or have sex with him. (Yeah, Horace is a magical sex god, lusted after by not one but two beautiful women.) Indeed, before he can even learn how to speak the language, Horace has become a grand figure at court, having to decide the fate of nations!
And therein lies the problem with Blood and Iron to me: Horace’s progression from haunted widower to slave to sorcerer to sex god to member of the royal court happens much too rapidly in this story. There is nothing inherently unrealistic about it occurring – but at a slower pace. Honestly, no matter how much you attempt to suspend your sense of reality and will yourself to believe that Horace could evolve from "powerless to powerful" this quickly, you just cannot make yourself. At least, I couldn’t, and eventually, the outrageous nature of Horace’s rise soured an otherwise enjoyable novel.
Even with all that being said, there are a lot of things to like in this novel. The middle eastern setting is well done. The writing is superb with tons of very detailed descriptions of people and setting that brings this land to life before your eyes. There are even a few characters that rise above the mess of Horace’s tale: the Queen being my favorite, as she is crafted into a very realistic, three dimensional person. So even though I disliked the handling of Horace’s part in the story, I do not view Blood and Iron as a bad book or one not worth reading. Sure, there are some problems here, but I will be giving Mr. Sprunk the benefit of the doubt that he can correct those issues and deliver on the great promise of this epic fantasy.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.