Book of the Week: Son of the Black Sword

When I first heard that Larry Correia was dipping his toe into “epic fantasy”, I have to admit that I rolled my eyes a little. How, I wondered, was he going to transform his patented gun porn, in which he lovingly chronicles every detail of a firearm, right down to the special blend of custom gunpowder that was formulated by the gunsmith for maximum impact, and which is of particular appeal to his core audience, into faux medieval terms?

I had visions of entire chapters being dedicated to the forging of Very Special Swords, and frankly, I doubted it was going to be as entertaining; a portrayal of a man testing the heft and balance of a sword just isn’t the same as one competitively testing out the accuracy of a firearm at a firing range. Also, no vampires, werewolves, or Agent Franks.

But I should have known better. The most recent Monster Hunter International book showed how Larry has improved as a writer, both in terms of conceptual originality and characterizations. Son of the Black Sword represents another step forward for him; Correia may be a bestselling author, but unlike other bestsellers in the SF/F field, he has not been content to stand pat and keep churning out the same sort of thing over and over again, he has instead continued to refine his craft.

Son of the Black Sword is not, strictly speaking, epic fantasy. Neither is it high fantasy. I would describe it more as high sword & sorcery as there is a distinct flavor of REH about both the hero and the world, neither of which owe anything at all to JRR Tolkien, much less Robert Jordan, or, some political machinations aside, GRR Martin.

While I was less impressed with the worldbuilding than John C. Wright was, it is a competent use of the seldom-seen-in-fantasy Indian caste system and lends itself nicely to several key aspects of the plot. As you’d expect from Correia, there is a lot of action and the story never bogs down from start to finish. What you might not expect from him is some better-than-average characterizations, and the tale of the protagonist, Ashok, is gradually unveiled in a remarkably sensitive, even touching manner considering that he is a nigh-unstoppable killing machine with no more inclination towards mercy than the average Terminator.

And what you definitely won’t expect from Correia is an intelligent subtext running throughout the novel providing a subtle metacommentary on the civilization-scale challenge facing Western society today. It is so subtle, in fact, that I’m not entirely certain Correia actually intended it, but regardless, it gives Son of the Black Sword an amount of the melancholy depth that endows the Conan stories with enduring power.

Although it will come as unwelcome news to some, Son of the Black Sword shows Larry Correia in the process of transformation from a popular author to a very good author who merely happens to be popular. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys action-fantasy, martial arts revenge thrillers, political intrigue, sword & sorcery, or in particular, RE Howard’s Conan.