Book Review: The Gallows Black

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The Grave of Empires is shaping up to be a new favorite fantasy series. Filled with humor, wit, and memorable if somewhat questionable characters who you can’t help but root for, Sam Sykes’ latest series is just a joy to read. The Gallows Black picks up on the explosive energy of Seven Blades In Black and fills in a gap in the history of Sal and her friend/lover Liette. If you loved Seven Blades In Black you’ll definitely want to read this prequel novella.

“A standalone epic fantasy novella starring Sal the Cacophony, who Pierce Brown called a “protagonist for the ages,” from Sam Sykes’ widely acclaimed Seven Blades in Black.

To the city of Last Word, one of the last freeholds in a land rent asunder by magic, Sal the Cacophony comes with gun, a blade, and a burning need for revenge.

But when the gallows threatens to deny her the satisfaction of the kill, Sal the Cacophony decides to free her query — it’s the principle of the thing. And in doing so, she sparks a war that will shake the city’s fragile peace to its core.

To escape with her life and her kill, she’ll have to save a criminal-turned-companion: a Freemaker, versed in the forbidden arts of magic and machinery. But the weight of their secrets may be too heavy to let them escape in one piece.” – Goodreads blurb

Oof…I really can’t express how much I’m enjoying this new series. I know I said it above but I want to say it again. The Grave of Empires is just plain fun. Vulgar fun perhaps, but that’s part of the enjoyment.

The Gallows Black is a prequel to Seven Blades In Black and I’d recommend reading the latter first. You don’t have to, but it will make a lot more sense and some of the story line will be much more meaningful. The Gallows Black is a novella and therefore a quick read. The format works really well for the story as it is really a chapter that details how Sal The Cacophony first met Liette and all the chaos that ensued. Because lets face it if you were to ever meet Sal what ensues could only be chaos.

The plot picks up on the overall story from Seven Blades In Black in that Sal is searching for a person on her list. If you haven’t read book one I won’t explain the list, but if you have you’ll know why anyone on it is so important to her. The person on the list is about to be sent to the gallows in the Freehold of Last Word. Only Sal needs to kill him before he’s executed, because how could she get her revenge if she doesn’t? But, as often happens with Sal things don’t go to plan, and well she has to improvise when everything goes sideways. During the cluster that ensues Sal ends up saving the life of a Freemaker also condemned to die…none other than the infamous Twenty Two Dead Roses In A Chipped Porcelain Vase…or Liette for short. And that’s what this book is really about; it is the story of how these two lovers met and further explains the dynamic between the two.

Let me say now that I LOVE Liette. Almost as much as I love Sal. We already knew she was nerdy, wicked smart, and that Sal was absolutely in love with her (and so we too love her), but in this installment we find out she’s freaking deadly. We already knew she was one of the most wanted criminal Freemaker’s in the land and now we are told why. That combo of freaky smarts used toward deadly ends was fantastic. But…there’s more. There’s a darker side to Liette too. I won’t tell you what it is, but I was a bit surprised. Then there’s that moniker…Twenty Two Dead Roses In A Chipped Porcelain Vase…I just love that. And the fear the name alone instills in people is such a wonderful contrast with the picture of Liette you get from her other description. LOVE. THIS. CHARACTER.

And speaking of characters I want to add something about Sal’s gun The Cacophony. We already got the sense of The Cacophony as a character and not just an instrument in Seven Blades In Black. In The Gallows Black we see even more of it, especially it’s angry, brooding, and sullen nature. We see more of how it communicates and speaks with Sal and the strange bond and dynamic between the two. It’s a weird mixture of object and character that I absolutely dig.

Then there’s Sal. Still the main character and still her old snarky irreverent self, Sal just keeps on keepin on. What we get now is some depth to her softer side as it relates to Liette. You see early on how she falls for Liette, and falls hard, and falls fast! You see how it shakes Sal up a bit because it’s unexpected. And you see how meaningful it is to her. This book also digs a little deeper into Sal’s psyche as it relates to loss, and doing things to someone’s body without permission. These last two are not something new for Sal, but they get fleshed out a little more and we see the impact on her relationships.

The Gallows Black has that same western fantasy feel that Seven Blades In Black had. And by that I mean western (wild, wild, west) as a genre, not western style fantasy (like western Europe). Once again we find mages from the Empire, soldiers of the Revolutionary Guard, and Freemakers who want to subvert all their authority in the quest for knowledge. And then of course Vagrants like Sal. We encounter new types of machinery like the Marcher, a tank-like tower of war. This story though has the feel of that classic western where you get the shoot-out on Main Street at high-noon. In fact we get the shoot-out on main street at high-noon while they proceed to destroy the town…and it was marvelous. If you like an action story with gunfights galore you’ll love this one.

But it isn’t just action. It’s a love story. I’d argue it’s more of a love story than an action one. Because while all the gunfights and stabby-stabby, and explosions are happening all around the characters, at the heart of it is this love at first sight that develops between Sal and Liette. The explosive action all around them comes to mirror their own explosive and exciting relationship.

It’s also a story of loss and the things people do to fill the void that loss creates. Sal’s story is an obvious one and the book opens with what she’s doing to try to deal with the void her loss has created in her. Liette fills part of that hole, but she can’t replace what Sal is missing. Other characters are also dealing with loss which really comes to impact the overall narrative of the book. I can’t say more because spoilers, but suffice it to say loss becomes a major driving force of the plot.

And then there’s the issue of doing things to someone else’s body without their permission.This also is a major theme of the book that is picked up from the first installment. Sal REALLY doesn’t like it for reasons fleshed out in book one, and it comes to the fore in The Gallows Black in a way that complicates the character’s lives. I won’t say more because spoilers yet again, but this really is a major driving factor for Sal.

Sam Sykes manages to do a lot with just a little in The Gallows Black. He offers us wonderful character depth, fills in some background, and gives us a highly entertaining read filled with all the banter (oh the banter), action, and just plain irreverent fun that you’d want from another Grave of Empires book. If you enjoyed Seven Blades In Black you won’t want to miss this addition to the story of Sal and her quest for vengeance.

And Sam Sykes if you’re reading this can we get more of Sal and Liette soon? Please and thank you. (Yes I know book two comes out later this year…but I want it now.)

Note: This book as far as I’m aware is ONLY available as an ebook.

4 of 5 Stars

Author: Sam Sykes
Series: The Grave of Empires 0.5
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: May 18, 2019
Format: Kindle ebook
Pages: 140

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