I was privileged enough to get a Advanced Reader's Copy of WHERE LOYALTIES LIE by Rob J. Hayes and feel like it'd be a good time to mention what I think of it well ahead of everyone else. Bwhahahaha! Yes, my book review will determine the fate of its success. You know, if anyone remembers what I said when it's released in may.
This book is a sequel, of sorts, set in the same world as Rob J. Hayes THE TIES THAT BIND series. Despite this, while reading the last book will enrich your experience, it is not necessary to appreciate what is inside. This works entirely on its own as a standalone story of roguish pirate Drake Morass and his decision to try to build a nation out of the various pirate fleets which exist inside the seas of the Known World.
This impressive ambition is fueled by the fact he's managed to get to the top of his game as a pirate and con man but has recently lost his most lucrative con (being the lover to the Empress of China's equivalent in the setting) as well as winning the enimity of the world's most dangerous inquisitor. Drake has the seed money and contacts to become a king, sort of, but he has the problem that everyone knows him as a scheming treacherous bastard. To that end, he has to recruit a number of individuals who might actually be able to persuade, with sincerity, pirates to believe in a dream of a nation of their own. The fact Morass doesn't remotely care about the prospect save as a means of entitling himself is one of the books ironies and underscores the author's cynical views about causes.
Comparisons to Pirates of the Carribean are inevitable with the fact this is a supernatural pirate story with the calculating lead and his more straight-laced associate Keelin Stillwater. In fact, the similarities highlight the differences as Drake only has a heart of gold if he ripped it out from someone else's chest. He's charming, yes, but in the same way a snake is and the book makes no bones about his sociopathy. Keelin, by contrast, is desperate to be a good man but the fact he's a pirate makes all his attempts at righteousness ring hollow. The fact he wants a measure of redemption through leaving his current long-time pirate lover for a more "innocent" girl also shows the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of his desires.
Tanner Black, the book's primary antagonist, is an interesting take on the mythological Blackbeard. While Edward Thatch may have had his downer points, he wasn't the embodiment of cruelty and causal horror which Rob J. Hayes has created in his "villain." The irony of the character is he's right about everything, particularly that Drake Morass is going to get them all killed for his own ambition. His mind is an interesting place to be as well since his treatment of his daughter and son approaches Tywin Lannister levels of abuse (then passes everything but Tyrion's "moment") yet believes he loves them. By the end of the book, it was definitely my desire to see him destroyed as I can say about few fantasy villains--even though I hated Drake in a "love to hate" sort of way.
My favorite character in the book is probably Elaina Black, though, who has much of the appeal of the literary Asha Greyjoy and would very much work as the star of her own novel. Elaina desperately wants to please her father and be with her lover Keelin in a life of blood, sweat, and rum but this just isn't in the cards. Neither man is worth her devotion and it's clear she probably would be the best Pirate Monarch-but there's the issue of both her gender as well as her father's untrusworthinss standing in her way. Also, sadly, the fact she'd rather help those she loves than rule herself.
Make no mistake, despite the Caribbean-like environment, this book is grimdark. There's a horrifying scene in the book where a major character is "punished" which strips away any pretense the antagonists are decent people while the protagonists have the benefit of merely being slightly less monstrous. If you don't have a stomach for George R.R. Martin levels of violence and angst then this might not be the book for you. Fans of the Ties That Bind, for example, may remember that Drake was a VILLAIN in the previous book and did something most would consider irredeemable.
Even so, there's a kind of jolly (roger) energy to the book which propels its story forward. Even though we, the audience, know this is all a con, it's very easy to get swept up in the idea of a nation for the underdogs. The historical pirates of Nassau had the belief they could create an equal society for all before their dream collapsed due to, well, piracy being a poor method of creating a nation. It's really more of a supplementary income sort of thing unless you're Francis Drake at least. There's a good sense of humor to the book, too, which contrasts nicely against the somewhat grim protagonists of his previous book.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend this book and consider the duology (yes, I read the sequel too) to be Hayes' best work and up there with Mark Lawrence as well as Joe Abercrombie.