The Color of Vengeance is the sequel to the 2014 novel, The Heresy Within which I quite enjoyed (see my review here). The premise of the series, called the Ties That Bind, is a group of brutal antiheroes live in a Hyborian Age-esque world where the only law is "don't get killed." The setting is gritty, raw, and filled with both sex as well as violence. In short, it's a delightful setting for those who like their Sword and Sorcery with serious edge to it.
The book picks up where the previous book left off with Betrim a.k.a the Blackthorn having been captured by the Sarth Inquisition. Betrim was one of the three major characters of the previous book and, by far, the most deserving of the title villain. A brutal bandit and killer, his only redeeming feature was a surprising loyalty to his friends. This book drops the previous book's other two heroes, Jezzet Vel'urn and Thanquil Darkheart, to focus exclusively on Betrim. I was leery about this change since, sometimes funny moments aside, Betrim is a really scummy person.
Betrim has paid, at least in part, for his crimes and it's hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for him. He's missing a few fingers and his eye as well as having been imprisoned in deplorable conditions for the better part of a year. Worse, at least from the Blackthorn's perspective, he's been lead to believe Jezzet and Thanquil were killed by the Inquisition. Betrim swears revenge on the Inquisitor he failed to kill and ends up joining with the survivors of his old crew to take him out. Along the way, he finds new associates as well as discovers his old partner Swift has gone on to become a terrifying new power in the Wilds.
A warning for those individuals with delicate sensibilities, The Ties That Bind series is pretty hardcore in its depiction of what awful people live there. It's rarely graphic in its sex or violence but what's implied shows that this is a world where life is worthless and people are abused horrifically for the slightest gain. Rob J. Hayes has a gift for, in a few paragraphs, making you feel the staggering amount of injustice which is everywhere.
A minor character, for example, Lady Emin D'roan is a heroine of another story who has been made a slave by Lord Niles Brekovich and with just a few short words, we get the full implications of what she's enduring. This is just one of the many horrific things which goes on around the environment that lets you know this planet is a ****hole and should probably sink into the ground. The author depends on the reader being willing to stick with them through all this darkness not because he's going to make the world better with his characters but they can't make it worse.
This isn't a book for everyone.
It's a testament to the author's writing ability I still wanted to continue through the seedy, vile, and fascinating underbelly of his setting. The city of Chade is an wretched hive of scum and villainy which the citizens of Mos Eisley would go out of their way to avoid but you get a sense as to how this world came about. Monsters like Swift, who I wanted to see die more than the villains of the previous ten books I've read, have qualities which show there might have been a human being inside there once. There's also hope, even for people like the Blackthorn and his crew, that the characters might be able to crawl their way out of the moral pit they've dug for themselves.
It's just the entire world is against them.
If I had to choose a word for the setting, it is evocative. You believe you're in this Conan meets Deadwood-like Purgatory with everyone willing to do anything to survive. It's probably the last fantasy world I'd like to live in aside from perhaps the Nine Hells of Dungeons and Dragons but it is place which is fun to visit. The action is good, the characters leap off the page, and the black humor is often hilarious. I also give credit to the world-building that, without ever bogging things down, you understand how everything runs and who is what in relationship to each other.
Because I'm not a huge fan of the Blackthorn character, I was inclined to give this book a 9 out of 10 but that's unfair to the writing. So I'm going to give this book a 10 out of 10 with the warning it contains violence, swearing, sexual violence as backstory, misogyny from villains, torture, and general all bad attitude from everyone. If your preferred sort of fantasy is good guys and bad guys run screaming. This is black hat on black hat, with one hat being slightly darker than the other. Everyone else? Keep your hands on your purse and sword because this is one hell of a story.
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