On one hand, I’ve read a lot of Matt Wallace’s work– his Sin du Jour series, an urban fantasy set in a high-end restaurant/catering business that caters to nonhumans, is seven books long, but they’re all novellas, and there’s a big difference between a novella and a 498-page epic fantasy. Savage Legion is, as far as I know, his debut at novel-length, or at least his debut with a traditional publisher. So this guy’s got a good track record of me enjoying his work (his Twitter is worth a follow as well; I found his Twitter feed well before I read any of his his books) but I was still really curious about what he’d be like at length.
Good news! Savage Legion is awesome, one of my favorites of the year so far.
It’s interesting to look at the ways in which Savage Legion is willing to be a bog-standard work of epic fantasy and the ways in which it subverts the genre. Look at the cover, to start. The title, first of all, isn’t exactly subtle– a book called Savage Legion is unlikely to be a romance– and the text underneath announces right away that the book is part one of a trilogy, because, well, of course it it is! It’s epic fantasy! The depicted character is Evie, one of half-a-dozen or so rotating 3rd person POV characters, which is very much a modern, post-Song of Ice and Fire trope. The cover tells you a lot about the book, and what it tells you isn’t inaccurate– in a lot of ways, the weapon-bearing warrior standing proud over the corpses of her enemies, fire burning in the background, could have been the cover of any fantasy novel published in the last thirty years. Except, oh, that’s a brown-skinned woman, not a white dude. (I think they got her hair wrong, maybe, but that’s clearly Evie.)
Wallace’s characters are diverse as hell– most of them are nonwhite, one is nonbinary, not all of them are straight, and two have disabilities. A solid majority of the POV characters are women. All of this is utterly normalized– well, okay, the nonbinary character gets a bit of bigotry from some other characters, but no one ever fails to use anything other than they/them to refer to them– and I love how Wallace diversifies his cast simply by spreading around names and descriptions that fit different types of people and not by having, say, the nation to the south is like this and the nation to the north is like this going on, he simply diversifies his cast without relying on lazy stereotyping. There’s no attempt here to make the reader think oh, the Habloobians are the Asians in this world, and the Hammashammas are the Africans! and relying on whatever half-imagined shit they believe about Those People for the rest of the characterization. It’s remarkably refreshing.
And then there’s the actual plot, in particular the villain of the piece, which … well, it’s hard to talk about without spoiling things, because the last 20% or so of the book, where all of the various plot threads and previously-unconnected characters (rotating 3rd-person POV, remember) start knitting themselves together and you slowly come to realize that some of the characters you’ve come to like over the course of the book are the bad guys, or at least several of the other characters you’ve come to like sure as hell think they’re the bad guys. Sure, Martin had bad-guy POVs, and then there was Tyrion, who was sort of his own thing, but Jaime Lannister pushed Bran out of that window really early, and it was awfully clear really fast that the Lannisters were at least the antiheroes if nothing else, and that was before you got to the ice zombies up North. This is more like reading the whole book getting to like Arya more and more and then finding out she was the Night King. The twists at the end are great.
The setting is also post-monarchical and in some ways a socialist utopia. In some ways. Crache is like no fantasy world I’ve ever read about before, I’ll tell you that much. Again, I want to avoid spoilers, so you’ll have to read the book to dig into the politics here. It’s good shit, just trust me.
Wallace’s prose remains solid as hell; if you’ve not read him before, he’s a good guy to be writing axe-and-sword fantasy, and his battles and fight scenes (he used to be a wrestler, by the way) are superb. I’d compare his prose to Chuck Wendig’s, which it bears a lot of similarities to, except without as much of the deliberately fractured syntax that Wendig is so fond of. He’s not a flowery author at all, but for the type of books he writes, his style is remarkably well-matched.
So, uh. Yeah. I liked this one, and I can’t wait for the sequels. You’ll see it again toward the end of the year, I think, when my Top 10 list gets released. Go forth and read.
Savage Legion is available everywhere now.