Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Servants of War by Correia and Diamond - Review by SE

Review originally posted on Black Gate:

NEW TREASURES: SERVANTS OF WAR BY LARRY CORREIA AND STEVE DIAMOND

Servants of War by Larry Correia and Steve Diamond (Baen Books, 2022. 424pages).

 Cover art by Alan Pollack




Veteran fantasy readers may yawn if they hear about an epic fantasy about a farm boy in a remote village rising to power, and the first few pages of Servants of War dangles that trope before readers. And then horror rushes in like a tidal wave, and before Chapter 1 can end, the worn trope is burning with hellfire billowing alchemical smoke, a Grimdark spirit rises out of the book to slap the reader in the face, crank the head back, and pour gasoline-action down a thirsty throat.

Welcome to Servants of War.


The combination of military-fantasy veteran Larry Correria with horror-guru Steve Diamond promises “military fantasy with horror” and you’ll get trenches full of that. Baen released this masterpiece that opens The Age of Ravens series in hardcover and audiobook in March 2022; the paperback is due February 2023. Without spoiling, this post covers a summary, excerpts, and a small hint as to the forthcoming sequel.

OFFICIAL SUMMARY:

NEW MILITARY FANTASY FROM THE CREATOR OF MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL LARRY CORREIA AND MASTER OF HORROR STEVE DIAMOND

The war between Almacia and the Empire of Kolakolvia is in its hundredth year. Casualties grow on both sides as the conflict leaves no corner of the world untouched.

Illarion Glaskov’s quiet life on the fringes of the empire is thrown into chaos when an impossible tragedy strikes his village. When he is conscripted into the Tsarist military, he is sent to serve in The Wall — an elite regiment that pilots suits of armor made from the husks of dead golems.
But the great war is not the only — or even the worst — danger facing Illarion, as he is caught in a millennia-old conflict between two goddesses. He must survive the ravages of trench warfare, horrific monsters from another world, and the treacherous internal politics of the country he serves.


MILIEU & STYLE

The setting resembles an alternative earth on the Eurasia continent. A never-ending war continues between the Almacian state (West) and the Kolakolvia (East); cities and named battle zones resonate with pseudo-Eastern European flare: Rolmani, Praja, Transellia. Both sides disrespect (or forsake) the old ways and religions which are explicitly and overtly present, albeit repressed. Golems, ghouls, and blood storms haunt both armies. The clearest sacrilege is the repurposing of golem bodies to make Objects, the name for the mechanized war-suits Kolakolvia employs (how else can one defile another species than to tap its magical potential while playing in their corpses?). In short, there are three conflicting entities: the East, the West, and the Others. Each is manipulated by a Sister goddess. The variety of conflicts keeps this interesting, expect: human vs human; state vs state; human vs. state; and heroes vs supernatural.

If a dystopian, war-ravaged alternative earth feels too familiar, don’t worry. You’ll be salivating for a trip to an even darker realm, and you’ll get that too. That jolt reminded me of the beauty of the Silent Hill games in which players experience a terrifying ghost-town for a while until an air siren blares, paint peels off walls, Hell arrives, and players yearn to find a way back to the relative safety of the ghost-town.

Stylistically, this felt like a mashup of Warhammer’s gritty sci-fi battles, with Silent Hill’s weird world-building and exploration-of-Hells, with the demon-confronting Solomon Kane leading the sorties. Somehow the warfare was never portrayed as a giant chess board; instead, the combat was intimate, frontline adventure. Localized views of battle felt like episodes of Sword & Sorcery focused on the hero(ine). I kept thinking, this is what I’d expect if Mary Shelly teamed up with Robert E. Howard to rewrite Frankenstein for BattleTech fans.

WHO ARE THE SERVANTS OF WAR?

One didn’t think about war and politics when you had a mill to run, cows to tend, and crops to plant. The greatest question in Ilyushka every year had been how deep would the ground freeze? – Illarion character’s thoughts

Humans are just the puppets of the Three Sisters, but they comprise the titular servants of war. You’ll be rooting for them in a heartbeat. There are many characters, but the primary ones are below. Their paths intertwine, of course, as some become comrades and others enemies.

• Illarion Glazkov – a farm boy who evolves into an awesome soldier; he’s trailed by ravens as he seeks atonement
• Scout Specialist Natalya Baston (once in the 17th Sniper Division) – she’s an outstanding rogue motivated to free her family
• Arnost Chankov – a ghoul-tattooed, low-ranking officer over Illarion
• Oprichnik Kristoph Vals – Secret Service Agent under Chancellor and Tsar of Kolakolvia – no one can trust this guy, and all fear crossing him
• Amos Lowe – a mysterious prisoner seeking to remain anonymous and lost

EXCERPTS Reveal What to Expect

Mechanized Melee:
…More soldiers rushed out of the fog, swarming his legs. The hatch rattled as soldiers tried to pry it open. If they got that open he’d end up a red, oozing skeleton like the last pilot he’d seen.
Only Illarion’s Object did not react in the lumbering, clumsy fashion they’d come to expect. He brought the empty cannon barrel down on the head of one, crushing his skull and snapping his spine. Inside the coffin of rapidly dwindling air, Illarion twisted the controls. 12 spun and kicked. Frail bodies were crushed underfoot. Instinctively, he crouched as low as the braces around his legs allowed, then launched his body up. He’d never seen anyone jump in the suits before, and didn’t know if it was at all possible, be he had to try something.

12 was briefly airborne. The ground shook when he landed, and most of the soldiers were thrown free. He stomped down, popping skulls and driving bodies deep into the mud. A punch from his gun arm caved in a chest. A sweep of his halberd cut three bodies into six pieces. The last man hanging onto the latches was hurled free, but unfortunately for him, he left one of his gloves behind. He hit the ground, flesh already smoking, and quickly tried to bury his hand in the mud to save it. Illarion would’ve killed him, but that would’ve taken another second or two worth of air….


Horrors of War, Confronting Weird Creatures:
The doors were being torn to splinters. Kristoph watched, fascinated and appalled, as a monstrous head snapped through a window and bit off a trencher’s face off. A scorpion tail, but big around as his arm, zipped through a window lightning quick and stabbed another soldier in the chest. He fell near Kristoph’s feet. Kicking and twitching.

Kristoph looked up to see the monster trying to squeeze through the gap nearest him, despite two other soldiers spearing it with their bayonets. Somehow, its body was still slick and pale, as if the blood snow slid right off. Jaws snapped at him. Spittle hit him. Kristoph aimed his pistol and shot through the gap, and another immediately took its place.

As he looked down to reload, the man who had been stung was grasping at Kristoph’s boots. It was hard to understand him, with all the foam coming out of his mouth, but Kristoph suspected he was begging for a quick and merciful death. Anything to be spared the torture of this poison. It was so piteous that even Kristoph was tempted to aid him, but he might need the ammo, so he kicked the dying man’s hand away….


NEED MORE OF The Age of Ravens?


Noir Fatale, an anthology edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell (Baen, 2019), has a prequel to Servants of War called “The Privileges of Violence” by Steve Diamond. It’s a grim homage to the Maltese Falcon featuring at least three of the same characters. Highly recommended.

Servants of War focused on the machinations of two of the three Sisters. Subsequent books promise to highlight the remaining goddess as all the servants of war resolve their tension with the Tsar of Kolakolvia and the Sisters. Book 2 in The Age of Ravens is forthcoming and has a tentative title of Instruments of Violence.