Review: Deathbringer by Blake Carpenter
Deathbringer is a dark sword and sorcery tale of necromancy and revenge featuring a talking sword, lite steampunk setting, and gory action. This first story in the Spellswords Saga pulls no punches.
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Deathbringer. I encourage you to check it out!
Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)
This review first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of ANIVIL: The Iron Age Magazine (Issue 1). It contains minor spoilers.
Deathbringer Publisher Description:
Inga Alenir is a Swordbearer. She is the latest in a long line of women to inherit a magical weapon called Deathbringer. She’s also dead, murdered on her wedding day by the ruthless and covetous noblewoman Yenda Avard, who steals the sword after killing Inga and her entire family.
And yet, some secrets won’t stay buried. Deathbringer has a will and a consciousness of its own, and even has the power to raise Inga from the dead for a short time. It warns her that she has one week to find and retrieve the sword before death reclaims her—permanently. With each day bringing her doom and final demise ever closer, Inga will have to see just how far she’s willing to go to achieve her vengeance.
DEATHBRINGER is a compositional mix between the violent, grisly hunt for revenge in the film NIGHTENGALE and the tale of Vasher and his talking sword Nightblood in Brandon Sanderson’s WARBREAKER. Fans of dark fantasy, of tragic love stories and tales about seeking revenge against long odds will enjoy this debut novel by Blake Carpenter in the world of Agareth where a scorned, young widow fights back against the powerful elites that wronged her, and begins a journey that might turn the entire world against her.
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Deathbringer belongs firmly to the dark fantasy genre. Readers interested in horror elements such as necromancy, a brooding tone, and revenge themes are going to find everything they are look for here.
There is also an element of a morally ambiguous protagonist present, although it does not trip into postmodernist nihilism. Inga is dedicated to her revenge, and that presents certain moral situations in which she can be interpreted as anti-heroic. However, it is clear that she feels there is a line somewhere. She does not kill Kale, for example, as he does not resist her judgement and feels remorse for her death. She also does not wreak havoc upon innocent (or unrelated) people when she raises undead to fight for her, and “releases” those dead when the task she set for them is completed.
The Spellsword Deathbringer, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous. Inga does not get the impression that he is evil, but he does not have a moral compass. He is a sword. I will be interested to see how their relationship develops over the series.
Strong Female Lead
Inga makes for a good female protagonist. Her emotions are logical and not contrived or cringy. She has a great power, but does not feel overpowered. Part of this is due to the time constraint she faces, and part of it is due to her resolution to work within her own moral guidelines. She has skills and has to use them well in order to emerge victorious.
I also appreciated her “country bumpkin” attitude. Carpenter managed to make her engaged in the world around her without making her naïve.
Carpenter does not use the term “steampunk” to describe this story, but there are certainly setting elements that give it that flavor. The treatment of guns alongside swords is not necessarily unique, but the presence of a train—“a long black best of riveted iron and steel”—and dirigibles (if only in passing) deliver a more retro-futuristic feel.
Furthermore, Carpenter’s attention to details in his thoughtful descriptions reveal a vibrant world with depth and character. Clothing has specific features; rooms are furnished and alive with color. These sorts of descriptions are not limited to steampunk, of course, but fans will recognize the proclivity for extending worldbuilding to culture and style, not merely history and politics.
One interesting element in the world of Deathbringer is the matriarchal social structure. Often modern fantasy employs “antiquated” gender stereotypes to drive tension and garner reader outrage on behalf of the oppressed female character. However, flipping the ordinary social hierarchy on its head accomplished something more subtle than social commentary.
It gave the story a unique, off-kilter feeling. The society felt foreign and less generic, which resulted in more active attention on my part during dialogue or situations which would ordinarily have less tension to drive the pace. The difference, never overexplained, felt like a bit of puzzle for my brain and kept me engaged.
Furthermore, I didn’t feel like Carpenter was driving me towards a conclusion or argument around the issue. Generic rights statements about power imbalances are made, but they felt like they derived naturally from the world, and were not contrived to influence me in mine.
Perhaps it is the power-swap that gives the love interest that morose feeling of tragedy. Consider the damsel in distress problem and solution: girl loves hero, who kills evil ex-lover. It is so often told that it feels natural, regardless of other romantic obstacles.
However, with the roles reversed, the mutual attraction of the characters progresses less confidently, with greater complexity and fewer reader assumptions about how their relationship should progress. This uncertainty, again, increases reader engagement, playing with the hope that things will work out somehow.
The world, with all its wonder, is a setting for a tale of vengeance. Although the story begins slowly with Inga’s doomed wedding, it quickly escalates into murder and mayhem. Carpenter’s descriptions possess the same robustness in recounting action that they do in illustration.
As the plot progresses, Inga refuses attempts by other characters to placate her: a neighbor, her love interest, the mother of her murderer. Some readers may find this dedication to violence off-putting, as it violates our cultural understanding of the legitimacy of revenge. Others will find it cathartic that Inga does not compromise her convictions and that justice is ultimately served due to her dedication.
I think it is important to note that Inga is not fulfilled by her revenge. It felt like her emotional state is part of the larger journey of the series, which reserves judgement on her behavior for now.
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Deathbringer is a driving revenge story that delivers a well-crafted world, enigmatic characters, and savage restitution for the wicked. I’m eager to see where The Spellsword Saga is headed next!
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