By Keith Blackmore
Blackmore is a vastly under-appreciated author. His Mountain Man novels are a superb example of a post-apocalyptic / zombie series.
131 days does for heroic, gladiatorial fantasy what Mountain Man did for Zombies, a charged, fast-paced story that has confidence, style and plenty of GrimDark. Every year in the city of Sunja, gladitorial games are held in the Pit. Often fighting to the death, some fighters enter for fame, others for the money - a few for the chance of carrying out acts of violence legally. For Baylus, Goll, Halm, Pig Knot and Muluk its the lure of fortune that draws them.
The games continue for days, until a champion is found or all are maimed, killed or knocked out of the tournament.
One of the things that first gripped me reading 131 days is the characters. None of them are perfect, some not even that like-able and not a single one is so important they can't be killed. Seriously, you just start to like a guy and then the next minute he's dead, killed by some lucky strike or more accomplished foe. The author manages to make each of these characters seem real, and does so in the space of a few lines. It takes a special talent to do that and blackmore has it in spades. This happens right from the start with a fight that reminded me of Game of Thrones "the Mountain vs the Viper" scene in it's ferocity and suprising finish.
The fight scenes are bloody, gory with a great deal of realism, totally engrossing. Given that this is a book about gladiators there are a lot of these fight scenes, some in the arena - others in bars and alley-ways. There is some great choregraphy and some memorable scenes, the best of them from the overweight but suprisingly talented fighter "Pig Knot" - one of which deals with him having to fight while nursing a monumental hang-over, another facing a group of men and still managing to come out on top.
The story follows the "free trained" who are treated as outcasts and bullied into joining a house or finding themselves with a shortage of limbs. Halm, Pig Knot and Muluk have had enough and decide to do something about it. These three are wonderfully imperfect characters that play off each other brilliantly. None of them really have a concise plan of what to do, other than fight, survive and spend the winnings - until they figure out that they might need to start their own house if they don't want to join one. The story works well, especially within the harsh, low-fantasy setting. Forget spells zipping past or battles with fantasic beasts, this all about the gladitorial combat. The writing is accomplished, with a dry, gritty edge that fits in with the harsh setting, right from the opening lines:
Except it wasn't really like thunder. It was more like that initial crash of driving headfirst into a deep body of water - that rush of sound and pressure that flattens a man's ears to his skull...
The ending works well and set things up for the next book in the series, which will hopefully have a lot more of those irascible characters.
131 days is a wonderfully savage, gritty and entertaining novel that manages to pack in a great deal of humour that stops it becoming too dark. Highly recommended.
Written on 16th October 2018 by Ant .