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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Blackwood Marauders by KS Villoso (reviewed by David Stewart)



OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATIONK.S. Villoso was born in a dank hospital on an afternoon in Albay, Philippines, and things have generally been okay since then. After spending most of her childhood in a slum area in Taguig (where she dodged death-defying traffic, ate questionable food, and fell into open-pit sewers more often than one ought to), she and her family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where they spent the better part of two decades trying to chase the North American Dream. She is now living amidst the forest and mountains with her family, children, and dogs in Anmore, BC.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURBGrowing up in a quiet farm, Luc "Lucky" son of Jak didn't think much of the world until he fails the military entrance exam and finds himself responsible for a group of vicious, bloodthirsty mercenaries. Raised to be honest, upright, and true, his own ideals clash with the mercenaries' shaky morals. His problems take a turn for the worst when he falls into a trap set by Roena Blackwood.

The eldest of Duke Iorwin's daughters, Roena is adamant that life can only go her way. A high priest's prophecy causes her to rethink her options and take the path less travelled: that of a travelling mercenary. 

But killing monsters and saving villages can only get interesting for so long. Luc and Roena find themselves in a twisted plot concocted by none other than the merchant Ylir yn Garr. Together, they must learn to set aside their differences and work together to prevent disaster, even if it means confronting what they ran away from in the first place.

FORMAT/INFOBlackwood Marauders is 397 pages long divided over twenty-three chapters with an epilogue, and is a stand-alone fantasy novel. The book was self-published through Liam's Vigil Publishing Co. in 2018, and is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. Cover art and design by the author.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "You don't argue with a name like "Lucky" if you were lucky to be alive." Thus starts KS Villoso's Blackwood Marauders, and in doing so introduces us to its main character, one Luc "Lucky" apn Jak, a young man so likable from the start that even had I not enjoyed the story and other characters of Blackwood, I likely would have read it simply to walk through the world with him. Luc is something of a paradox, in that he presents a positive and outgoing bent on life while traversing a world that is decidedly dark and grim. He is consistently in contrast to almost every other person he meets, and somehow Villoso makes this work.

There is much about Blackwood Marauders that could see it undervalued as just another fantasy coming-of-age story in a pile of them that none of us will ever be able to finish. There are tropes aplenty from the start: Luc leaves his rural village to find his place in the world; a convenient set of events leads him away from that home and does not allow him to come back; he does not know who his real parents are and was found washed ashore by a man who happened to be as morally pure as they come; etc. These are all themes we have read about before, in various mediums, and to see them emerge again either feels like visiting an old friend or having an old, unwelcome, friend visit you. I would argue for the former in the case of Blackwood Marauders because I think Villoso's voice provides a fresh take on this type of story. For one, Luc is not the shy, young man lacking confidence that we expect in this type of tale. He has a brashness to him that is common only in Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers, but it is a boldness tempered by his need to do what's right. He has character, imparted to him by the aforementioned moral father, and he never compromises that center even when faced with some truly troubling decisions. Luc is offset by Roena, the spoiled, rebellious daughter of a local lord, and when the two eventually meet, there is a clash of ideologies that is fascinating to watch.

Like many coming-of-age tales, Blackwood Marauders follows a Hero's Journey path. Luc leaves home, descends in to the underbelly of humanity, finds various mentors in various forms, and eventually returns home a changed man. Along the way he joins a mercenary band, kills magical creatures that he has no right tackling, and meets a gamut of fantasy personalities. I truly enjoyed Villoso's world-building, even if at times I found it hard to follow. She has built lore into her writing that has the ring of authenticity to it, and I wanted more by the end of the novel. I was actually disappointed to learn that Blackwood Marauders is a stand-alone, both for those lore reasons and because I think Luc is a good enough character to carry a series forward.

I did have some more pressing issues with the book. The writing can be inconsistent, with tense shifts and oddities in grammar that unerringly pulled me away from the narrative. This is not to say that there aren't beautiful lines within, like this personal favorite, "Daughter and father were like the sun and the moon - neither could light the sky at the same time." The dialogue can feel off in places while being excellent in others - certain characters feel incredibly real while others often feel like caricatures. Around the two-thirds mark of the novel, the pacing gets thrown off track, with events seeming to speed up and slow down in a disconcerting way, as though the novel were rushed in its back half and potentially even edited less.

Despite those issues, I really enjoyed what Blackwood Marauders had to offer. There is a mixture of Robin Hood and the Black Company in Villoso's depiction of the mercenary band that Luc and Roena find. I think Luc is a character worth returning to, and while I didn't particularly love Roena, I think she holds her own and the disparity between her and Luc, which ebbs and wanes throughout the novel, is interesting enough in its own right. Mostly, I just want to learn more about this world she's built. My hope is to do so with some of her other novels which seem to provide that backdrop I seek. Blackwood Marauders, despite its flaws, certainly receives a recommendation from this reader.

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