The Black Guard (The Long War) by AJ Smith

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The Black Guard (The Long War) by AJ Smith

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This first-in-a-fantasy-saga-series swings from excellent to standard fantasy fare and back again. By the last page I felt as though I'd been round the block a bit but that doesn't stop me sitting on the edge of my seat till the sequel arrives.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 640 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781855621

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Ro Canarn is falling to the brutal conquest of the Red Knights. Duke Hector, its ruler, is on the verge of death and his twin offspring Lady Bronwyn and Lord Bromvy are on the run, outcast. However this is merely a portent of greater troubles ahead. One of the evil Seven Sisters is seen accompanying the Red Knights so if there is a secret agenda it's not a good one. Meanwhile if Ro Canarn can fall, is anywhere safe anymore?

This is AJ Smith's first novel but no one can say he hasn't given it some thought. The British author and youth worker has planned, plotted and lived The Black Guard (the name by which the outcasts are known) and subsequent books in his Long War series for 12 years. The result is well packed with all but kitchen sinks.

How well packed is 'well packed'? There are over 80 characters listed in this volume alone, two different shades of monk, two feisty females, seven enchantresses, giant spiders, the undead, a few religions, three lands, the crusaderesque knights, the vikingesque warriors and a hero named Algenon Teardrop whose very name makes me giggle inappropriately. (Sorry Algenon - I'm sure you're tough really!) Add a nod or two to Tolkien and we have something that's mostly very good.

Over the 640 pages I developed a reading strategy that seemed to work for me so I'll share it. Ignore the maps after a cursory glance (unless you're a cartophile) as the locations become immaterial. Also ignore the cast list at the back as it contains spoilers. The next tip is not to panic about remembering characters' names. If they're important enough you'll remember them; if you forget them then they're not important enough. By the end of the first eight chapters while the author does a Game of Thrones with a chapter per character you'll develop your favourites. I definitely did.

I love young Randall, the squire who kicks off the story by watching his has-been boss die. Little Hella, the Viking (ok, they aren't called Vikings but...) is lovely and I adore the wry clerics Tirian (the purple monk) and Utha (the black monk and, ironically, an albino). Yes, they're baddies in some ways but they have a great line in patter and I couldn't get enough of them.

We may groan a little about the enchantress meme being employed, but AJ uses the wicked ladies to such good effect, each having their own individual talent, I didn't mind a bit. I'm not the twins' greatest fan yet as they're a bit flat/central casting by comparison to most of the others but Lady Bron shows promise by the end of the book so they could be characters to watch.

At times the battles feel generic and almost interchangeable, contrasting with some wonderful episodic fights/interludes that stick in our minds. The top of my list for the latter is the exciting dungeon dust-up in which Randall graduates to fully-fledged hero.

There is definitely gore in the Brent Weeks/Luke Scull/Joe Abercrombie tradition. There's also swearing; yes, indeed, a considerable amount of swearing. AJ's mother and the undead don't like its frequency but I'll leave you to decide.

Our emphasis should be on The Black Guard being an introduction volume; traditionally hardly ever the greatest book of a series. For me, though, it contains enough promise and excitement to make me salivate (in a lady-like manner) at the thought of the next volume and, if I can say that after over 600 pages, it must be good.

I'd like to thank Head of Zeus for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: 2013 continues to be a great year for debut fantasy writers. If this appeals and you'd like to catch up with other first-timers, we recommend The Grim Company by Luke Scull or Promise of Blood (Powder Mage Trilogy) by Brian McClellan.

A J Smith's The Long War Novels in Chronological Order

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Buy The Black Guard (The Long War) by AJ Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Black Guard (The Long War) by AJ Smith at


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