An evil, corrupt sorcerer has a pact with a family of demons. Every few years, the big demon on campus rolls up and impregnates all of the women in the sorcerer’s family. In return for the demonic-looking hellspawn of this union, the demon uses its influence to get lesser denizens of the supernatural world to fall into line and obey the sorcerer’s commands. But now that demon has been slain, and with the time to renew the pact coming due, the sorcerer has to find the demon’s brother and free it from a prison.
Who better to help him then the two bumbling tomb raiders who killed the original demon in the first place?
Nix and Egil are your standard “buddy cop” fare: Nix is lithe and quick, the typical thief or rogue; Egil is a hulk, quick to anger but with his own sense of fairness. They are the smart-talking duo every writer might dream of creating. And, after that last big haul, which included slaying a nasty devil, they are supposed to be retired. Getting kidnapped and forced to do a sorcerer’s bidding through a magical compulsion certainly wasn’t anywhere near the top of their bucket list.
In The Hammer and the Blade, Paul S. Kemp takes a lot of the good, lighter side of fantasy and uses it to create a fun and fulfilling story. The way in which Rakon draws Nix and Egil into his nefarious scheme is believable and also rather sinister. Kemp is quick to establish our heroes as competent and effective—particularly as a team—but far from invincible. Nothing is worse, especially in a buddy comedy, when the team is both smart-talking and nigh-indestructible. No, though Nix is quick to throw off one-liners, too often he finds himself in over his head.
The conflict itself is a delicious mess of personal and political badness. Rakon is the adjunct to the Lord Mayor. This usually means “power behind the throne”, helped in this case by several spells on the Lord Mayor designed to weigh down his mental faculties. He needs this pact to maintain his position of power. At a more intimate level, however, the pact means allowing a demon to rape and impregnate his sisters for the first time. Now, rape itself is a terrible crime—and I’d say that orchestrating the rape of one’s sisters so that one can stay in power is about on par. There really is no sympathy for Rakon, despite Kemp’s careful use of narrative perspective to explain his motivations: he is a villain, through and through.
Rakon’s sisters don’t just lie down and accept this abuse. Although he has attempted to use his magic to contain them, physically and mentally, they have formidable mental powers of their own. Rusilla manipulates events to make it possible for Nix and Egil to challenge Rakon on their own terms and rescue herself and her sister. This helps mitigate possible “White Knight” problems with the basic plot of “two masculine heroes rescue the damsels in distress”—yes, Rusilla needs their help to save herself and her sister, but Nix and Egil wouldn’t even know the score if it weren’t for her.
Alas, although the plot is straightforward, it takes a while to really get going. Once it heats up, the pacing stays on target. For the first part of the book, though, there is an awful lot of build-up. This could have been a huge problem. Fortunately, Kemp’s writing steps up to make it easier on the reader: Nix and Egil’s dialogue is not only fun but funny. My favourite line comes just after Rakon captures them. Nix demonstrates some magical knowledge, and when Rakon wonders where he came across it, he mentions his year at the Conclave. Rakon then assumes Nix dropped out, and Nix—not a little exasperated—replies, “No, why does everyone assume I dropped out? I was expelled!”
Kemp’s sparse description and worldbuilding reminds me a little of Giant Thief. I’ve been trying to understand why I liked this book and not the other. One reason would be the pair of heroes here: Nix and Egil just work together, whereas Easie Damasco is hard to bear on his own. Also, Kemp makes me interested in the plot: I want to see how Nix and Egil escape from Rakon and foil his plans—and at one point, I genuinely believed they wouldn’t succeed and that Kemp was setting them up for a revenge sequel! This is a sharp contrast to Giant Thief’s somewhat lackadaisical plot.
The Hammer and the Blade might not have the most richly-imagined world, and from time to time I felt a case of name soup brewing beneath the surface. Kemp usually keeps it together, however. I’m just more used to the setting almost becoming a character in books like this, and we don’t get much of a sense of what makes Nix’s city a unique place. Everything is generic: taverns and brothels and the city “watch”. It works all right, but it’s a little lazy, and I would like to see the world expand later in the series.
Kemp demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, that a book with lots of little flaws can still be an enjoyable read. There was no point where I felt like I needed to put The Hammer and the Blade down and pick up something else; quite the opposite, there were a few days when I stayed up a little later than I should have to read another chapter. As far as fantasy adventures go, this is an excellent example of how to create a story that is light-hearted on the surface but still full of dark and complex subtext.