Books: The Hammer and the Blade

In Brief:  Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade is old-school Sword and Sorcery with contemporary sensibilities.  Kemp pays homage to Leiber and Gygax, and sets up a pair of of likable characters for serial-style adventures.

Pros:  The lead characters, Egil and Nix, are familiar tomb-raiding adventurers straight out of the AD&D Player’s Handbook.  They are also fleshed out pretty well as the author introduces his magical world and keeps the plot moving.  Kemp obviously knows his Sword and Sorcery, and you feel as if you might bump into The Gray Mouser or Conan or Kull at any moment.

Cons:  The Hammer and the Blade is a self-contained adventure focused squarely on Egil and Nix.  It’s not an epic continent and kingdom spanning tale.  Some may prefer a grander scope.  The setting and styling are also very familiar fantasy staples, a potential drawback for those seeking less familiar worlds.

Review:  The book opens with Egil and Nix in the final stages of a dungeon crawl.  They are professional tomb raiders who’ve been at it for awhile, as quickly established by the author’s rapid quip-filled dialogue.  This is Riggs and Murtagh with swords and warhammers.  In the tomb of an ancient wizard king, they avoid traps and finally face off with a hellspawn guardian.

The author sets the scene and handles the introductions with smooth efficiency and we almost immediately like these two characters.  Egil is a warrior-priest of Ebenor – a deity who was only a god for a brief moment before being destroyed.  Egil is also apparently the only priest of Ebenor (not much use worshiping a dead god who can’t answer your devotion after all), with a philosophy tied to recognizing and venerating the moment.  Nix Fall, aka Nix the Quick, is a thief with a bit of magical training (he takes pride in the fact that he was expelled from the Magician’s Academy), who pulled himself out of the slums with his wits and skill.  

Are they familiar archetypes?  Yes.  But the author imbues with humor and personality from the start, and you’re immediately rooting for them.  As an example, Egil and Nix seem unable to recall why they set out to raid this tomb and face the demon as the story begins.  It’s dungeon.  They’re adventurers.  It’s what they do.  The conversation as to why they’e once again risking their lives for treasure sets the stage for the next chapter.  They decide that maybe they shouldn’t just piss away their earnings on beer and women.  They conclude it’s time to invest in something, and purchase their favorite tavern, The Slick Tunnel (yes, it’s also a whorehouse).

Again, I appreciated this turn of events, especially in the context of the story, because adventurers usually have this dichotomy of what they do when they’re not out a-questing.  If you like to drink beer and carouse, why not invest in your favorite dive?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city of Dur Follin, Rakon Norristru, a wizard of questionable morals, has learned that the ancient pact between his family and a clan of devils from the abyss has been compromised.  This pact basically offers up the females of the Norristru family to the devil clan as concubines – the more human-seeming of the offspring continue the Norristru line, while the more demonic go back to the abyss to serve the clan.  Yeah, pretty sinister stuff there.  But the devil on the material plane who fulfills this duty has just been slain by – you guessed it – Egil and Nix.

So Rakon has a problem.  His two sisters are old enough to renew the pact and begin bearing devil-spawn and it’s time nearly time to enact the ritual.  Rakon knows that another of this clan of devils is on the material plane, imprisoned and bound somewhere in the cursed wastelands.  The only way to free this devil requires an ancient talisman believed to rest in the tomb of another ancient wizard king.  And who are the best tomb raiders around?  You guessed it – Egil and Nix.

From there, the story follows Rakon’s attempts to enlist and ultimately coerce the aid of Egil and Nix.  Along with some henchmen, this unlikely band sets out on their quest to retrieve the talisman.  And, as Egil and Nix start to piece together Rakon’s true motivations, you better believe they’re not going to stand for it.

There’s plenty of action, magic, escapes, and battles, but what won me over were the downtime moments, like when Nix returned to the slums to pay his respects (and some coin) to the old woman who helped raise him and feed him.  Or the discussions between Nix, Egil and Rakon’s henchmen, as the two comrades slowly win over their captors.  Or the duo’s unlikely and awkward attempts to figure out how exactly they’re going to manage a tavern. Egil and Nix are certainly an archetypal pair, but that doesn’t stop Paul Kemp from imbuing them with some humanity and character.

Bottom Line:  If you’re looking for classic sword and sorcery adventure, give The Hammer and the Blade a look.  This one has all the ingredients, and Paul Kemp certainly knows what he’s about.  We’re hoping to read more tales of Egil and Nix in the near future.

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