Sal the Cacophony is a hell of a character. I don’t know that I’ve read her equal, though Monza Murcatto from Joe Abercromie’s Best Served Cold is close. These deadly ladies share a few common characteristics, from their ability to extract death from the unlikeliest of circumstances, to their completely unforgiving and exacting attitudes towards any and every one. They are also hell-bent on revenge, blinders on and charging forward no matter how many cities burn. Where Sal differs is that she does soften her hardest edges with some of the funniest lines I’ve read in a book, let alone a fantasy book. She has a second-career as a stand-up should she ever find the life of vengeance and murder less satisfying.
Before I continue, Seven Blades in Black does have a story, and it’s a good one. It might even be really good, but there’s no doubt that Sal is the star of this show, and Sykes could probably entertain an audience by having her ride around on her chocobo (oops, I mean bird of course), shooting her gun in the air and breaking wind (and she basically does this a few times). Sal is a novel-carrier, which is unfortunate because it also means she has plot armor, which she wields to great effect during the course of Seven Blades. The narrative is told in the guise of a storytelling, with Sal explaining to a Revolutionary general named Tretta the events that have transpired over the past few weeks of her life. It is a clever bit of writing structure because it allows Sykes to get away with a few things that would otherwise break the narrative flow. Sal often refers to “you” in the writing, which in other first-person viewpoints would be immersion breaking, but because Sal is telling her story to a character in the book, and because those portions where Sal and that character interact are in the third-person, it works. It also allows for some extreme embellishment of the story. I’ll explain that further.
Seven Blades in Black is a lot like an anime series. The characters are larger than life, the plot is world-shattering in scope, and the fight scenes are bombastic to the point of ridiculousness. Sal gets beaten up so much, tossed around so roughly, and is basically dead for so much of the novel that the suspension of disbelief becomes a little hard to swallow. That is, until you remember that she is telling a story to someone. It also helps that she is so full of herself throughout the novel, that any aggrandizing she does in that telling is completely believable. Like I said before, this is a neat trick of storytelling that, without much effort, allows Sykes to craft an over-the-top, completely ridiculous tale without his readers constantly rolling their eyes. Make no mistake, this is as action-movie as can be, and Sal is basically the fantasy equivalent of John Wick, but it works so well, and does precisely what it sets out to do, that almost all is forgiven.
The actual story is one of revenge. Like an older Arya Stark, Sal the Cacophony has a list, and her goal in life is to check off the names on that list. Unlike Arya, who in the A Song of Ice and Fire begins as a helpless child and becomes a remorseless killer, Sal starts off as one of the most deadly people in existence and has her power stripped away – thus why she wants revenge. Thankfully for Sal, at some point after her power is taken, she finds new power in the form of the Cacophony. The Cacophony is not just her namesake, but also an extremely powerful gun that shoots a variety of magical/alchemical bullets. The Cacophony is also a living weapon – it smiles at her often – and the relationship between Sal and the construct is one of the pivotal points in the novel. Rarely can a character exist without saying a word, but the Cacophony holds its own as a central figure in Seven Blades.
Sal is, ultimately, joined by a few other key figures in her quest for revenge. Liette is Sal’s lover and also her personal Freemaker. Freemakers are half-sorcerer and half-alchemist, and Liette is the one who crafts ammunition for the Cacophony. She also serves as a moral compass for Sal, who might otherwise veer completely off the rails. She also manages to rope a Revolutionary named Cavric Proud into her madness, and Cavric is an even more moral compass due to his almost unbelievably pure ideology. The Revolution stands in opposition to an Imperium, and the short of that conflict is that the Imperium enslaved those without magic for ten-thousand years before the “nuls,” as they are called, rose up and formed their own civilization. Sal was an Imperium but turned Vagrant, meaning she was cast out of all polite society, and begins the novel as the equivalent of an old West bounty hunter. A quick description of Sykes’ world-building is, “what if the American Revolution was fought because one side had magic and the other had technology, and then there were lots of explosions and lots of death.” Metaphorically, it’s not far off the historically accepted truths of U.S. history. Sykes world also has bird mounts instead of horses.
I think Sykes has something special on his hands with this first in The Grave of Empiresseries. The entire book is truly a joy to read, with genuinely funny moments that got me more than a few weird looks in public and at home due to the maniacal cackle that they caused. Sal is one of the most memorable fantasy characters I have come across, and I am actually relieved that she has such impenetrable plot armor because she really is the kind of protagonist around which a series can revolve. The only advice I might give for going into Seven Blades in Black is not to expect something with the grace and pathos of The Lord of the Rings, but rather know that you’re going to have a damned good time with a decent amount of pathos and almost no grace.