Earlier this year, I wrote a review for a novella by Peter Fugazzotto called The Witch of the Sands. It was a rare sword-and-sorcery tale, pulling us into the world of a band of sellswords from the North fighting witches and warlocks in the Dhurman Empire. All of this was, of course, the setup for his eventual novel and sequel, Black River, which brings the story of these Northmen to its climax.
In Black River, we follow Shield Scyldmund and the other Hounds of the North on their latest adventure. After losing several comrades in battle over the years, they receive a chance to return to the North on a mission from the Dhurman Emperor himself: to stamp out the last traces of dark magic posed by upstart warlocks. However, the journey home is bittersweet and perilous for Shield, not only because of the dying Northern culture under Dhurman rule, but because of the fact that one of the witches he’s positioned against is his own former love, Brigid Wordswallow.
So what does Black River have to offer as a story?
New points of view.
Whereas the first novel was focused entirely on Shield’s POV, we see Black River from a few other perspectives, from his fellow Northerner, Harad, to Vincius the Apprentice Chronicler who wants to root out dark magic and win his fame among the Empire. It does add some depth to the world and to each character’s road from beginning to end.
Life in the North.
We trade the deserts of the first story for the forests, rivers, and mountains of the North. The environment feels reminiscent of Northern Europe, with the Northmen playing the Germanic tribes to the Dhurman Empire’s Ancient Rome inspiration. I also like how the North has far more raw magic and culture infused in it than the dry, oppressive atmosphere of Vas Dhurma. It’s easy to see why Shield and his brethren would long to return to such a place, even with so many painful memories to face.
A long journey for redemption.
Obviously, the key tension in this story isn’t about Shield and Brigid, but about a band of Northern swordsmen and their allegiance to the Dhurman Empire. It’s about ancient history and how their adventures have kept them away from what truly mattered, which was their kin and their homeland. Every positive step that Shield and the Hounds take is back toward that Northern pride, even when their own folk have lost that pride under Dhurman rule.
Straightforward and repetitive language.
Much like Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune, Black River has a solid premise, but its execution leaves something to be desired. The actual writing was very “on the nose” for me. Characters like Shield and Harad would say things like, “We’ve been away from the North for too long,” making their inner tension apparent when it didn’t always need to be. And then such lines would be repeated in dialogue or inner monologues throughout the entire novel. Having it once or twice would be fine, but the sheer repetition of those sentiments hurt my concern for their characters since I was being hit over the head with their story’s themes of homecoming and redemption.
Overall, it’s not a bad sword-and-sorcery tale. There’s plenty of swords clashing across battlefields, fighting armies of the undead and other dark magic in the wilderness. However, the writing itself needs a bit more focus and trimming to improve the weight of its tale and the emotional impact of the characters’ journey. It’s a common problem for adventure stories, where action and scenery overwhelms the characters at the center, but if you’re looking for an otherwise solid adventure story, then Black River can work for you.
Black River is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon.
Bibliography: Fugazzotto, Peter. Black River. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2014.