Blood and Iron: For lovers of Ander Offutt’s Conan pastiches

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBlood and Iron by John Sprunk fantasy book reviewsBlood and Iron by John Sprunk

My favorite part of Blood and Iron is when Mulcibar tells shipwreck-survivor-turned-slave-turned-super-wizard-turned-Queen’s-Protector Horace, in all sincerity, that Queen Byleth is a strict mistress, but not cruel. Sorry, dude, you’re just wrong. Turning the brother who betrayed you over to your crazy mad scientist to be tortured as part of his experiment might qualify as “strict.” Sashaying down to the torture chamber/secret lab in your tissue-thin designer gown and gloating over said brother during torture is cruel. That’s okay, though, because tall, voluptuous, raven-haired, contralto-voiced Queen Byleth is not one of the main characters of Jon Sprunk’s new book Blood and Iron. She’s a high-fashion plot device, like Kim Kardashian doing a guest stint on Spartacus.

Blood and Iron is Book One of a fantasy series called THE BOOK OF THE BLACK EARTH. There are three main characters. Horace is from a society that seems similar to medieval Europe, a practitioner of a religion that worships a prophet and has started a crusade against the folks to the east – the Akeshian Empire. Jirom is a slave, a gladiator who later gets sold into the Queen’s army. Alyra is the Handmaiden With a Secret. Byleth is the queen of the city-state of Erugash, a magician and fashionista.

Besides fending off the religious-fanatic invaders, Byleth has picked a fight with the Priests of the Sun, because her family were moon-worshippers. Byleth’s whack-job vizier, Astaptah, is working on a secret weapon designed to harness the magical energy of zoana and intensify it. With this weapon, Byleth will be able to… destroy the Temple of the Sun? Fight off the invaders? Something big and dangerous, anyway.

Horace comes from a society with no magic and who doesn’t believe in or understand magic. He develops awesome zoana powers shortly after he’s shipwrecked in the Empire. No explanation is given for why suddenly he is so powerful that people call him “Storm Lord,” or why, unlike the local wizards, he doesn’t bleed from mystical wounds after he’s wielded magic. Jirom becomes part of a rebel cell inside the army, and one of their intelligence sources, an operative placed by another government, is exactly who you would expect it to be by now.

Soon, Horace’s easily-acquired superpowers get him assigned as the Queen’s protector, with kindly old counselor Mulcibar teaching him how to manage zoana. Most zoani or wizards have an affinity for one of the five states of zoana. Horace has access to all five.

This book reminded me of the late-1970s Conan and Cormac mac Art pastiches by Andrew Offutt, only without as much sex. The action sequences, and the magical battles with the zoana, are well done. The Priests of the Sun and the Queen appear to be adversaries for a very Robert E. Howard-esque reason; because the book says so, not because of fundamental philosophical or spiritual differences. As adversaries go, the priests are pretty good ones. The descriptions of certain artifacts, like the flying boat and Astaptah’s infernal machine, are ingenious and vivid. Blood and Iron mostly sets things in place for the upcoming books, with no real resolution to any of the issues that are raised in it.

In a couple of places, I outright cringed at word and world-building choices. The title of the priest rival, Rimesh, is Menarch, one letter away from menarche, the female menstrual cycle. I think that’s a bad pick. The wounds that accumulate while using zoana are called immaculata. If you’re going to go for Latin, why not just call them stigmata? The Empire is a male-dominated society (which is one of Byleth’s problems) and a fairly conventional one, but there is still no reason for Jirom to have to hide his desire for men. The desert culture serves cream with their fruit in the morning. Cream!

That said, even though the story is predictable, it has interesting moments and some great demons and monsters. The magical system is interesting. Lovers of Conan-style fantasy will enjoy this opening.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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  1. Does Queen Byleth wear chain mail bikinis? When I see those old Conan-style covers, it amazes me that the buxom women warriors wear bikini-sized armor. I mean, what’s the point? Obviously it’s not for protection, or it would cover more, right?

    • Apparently, all fantasy universes share one bizarre quirk in the laws of physics, referred to as the Barbarian Effect:

      Any sword stroke directed at a protagonist or supporting character has a likeliness to miss that is in inverse proportion to the amount of armor covering said character’s body.


      1) SOME armor is necessary. Rogue-type characters will commonly don leather vambraces and pauldrons over some kind of medieval trench coat in order to satisfy necessity. Conan has been known to get away with a single gauntlet, though this is not recommended unless your pecs are of greater than average size.

      2) An exception is the helmet, which seems to count in triplicate. If the character dons a helmet, he or she will almost certainly die on the battlefield, unless said helmet is offset by wearing nothing but loincloth, sandals, and (for females) sarashi. Even then, it’s iffy.

      3) Any potentially dangerous attack will always come via a sword. Axemen exist but are not dangerous (it is considered likely by experts that no protagonist has ever been killed by a battle-axe). Spearmen also exist, but their spears are theorized to be made of a substance similar to twizzlers, and are thus easily chopped to pieces. Maces, war-hammers, and flails do not exist except as allusions to mythology.

      4) No one is ever too frightened of imminent death to fail to notice an attractive redhead in a chain-mail bikini. Male, female, human, non-human, even non-humanoids like dragons and griffins… everyone will stop for a critical instant to gawk lasciviously.

  2. The chain-mail bikini were a running joke in my writing group for years. They’re not armor because they protect nothing, yet they can’t be comfortable for swimming because they’re metal… so no, they never made any sense.

    Byleth usually wears translucent/transparent, perfectly clingy fabrics. That’s ’cause she’s classy.

  3. Tim, that is excellent, but I have one quibble. #2, the helmet wearer will survive if the helmet is enchanted, only to trip over a rock in his battle-sandals after the melee is over, and break his neck.

  4. Read some of the new Red Sonja comics from Dynamite in regards to the skimpy chain mail bikini. They actually came up with a pretty good reason for hers, at least.
    She claims that a man is stupid enough to stop in a fight a gawk at her boos. But the real reason is, Red Sonja was gang raped by outlaws that killed her family. So on an almost subconscious level, she likes to make herself a target to tempt rapists so that she can kill them.

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