I’m going to be upfront and say I have to give A Sellsword’s Compassion three stars. But there are very specific reasons I’d do that. If you just want a gritty, somewhat dark, plausible fight scenes fantasy, this will probably suit you down to your bloodstained teeth, and I’d give it at least four stars for that. If you pull back and give some meta-thought to worldbuilding, though… well, I did, and that’s why the book frustrates me.
The main argh is this: Where’s the magic?
Seriously. One of the main plot points in the book is the existence of magical energy-spheres embodiments of Seven Virtues, one of which the hero, Aaron Envelar, gets stuck with. And I have to say while the irony of sticking a mercenary with Compassion is a bit amusing, the backstory Co reveals leaves a bunch of questions that, frustratingly, never get answered. There used to be wizards capable of creating energy-globes with personality and various special powers. Compassion’s last bonded seems to have had his age magically frozen, for one; Aaron notes that he was about fifty and didn’t look over thirty. Okay, fine. But besides Co, another Virtue, and some basic light-globes in a fancy club, we don’t see any other use of magic. Where are the wizards? Where is anybody who knows how to do magic anymore? There’s nothing in the story about that. At all.
Which is sad, because Aaron really could have used some healing magic, on multiple occasions. For someone who’s supposed to be a skilled mercenary he has an annoying habit of getting very badly hurt, even up against situations in which he seems to think he has everything under control. Which damaged my suspension of disbelief. He’s supposed to be a skilled mercenary. That implies knowing when he actually does have a situation in hand, or not. Instead he keeps getting painted into corner after bloody corner, finally culminating in a last stand at the end of the book where he’s only saved by someone else’s Dramatic Sacrifice (one of the few possibly nice characters in the book, why am I not surprised) and by some early-in-the-story characters showing up out of nowhere. As if the author realized he’d stacked the odds too high, and had to resort to an authorial saving throw to make sure Aaron lived.
And then there’s the Reveal that oops, Aaron, you were actually working for X cause all along…. That really bites me, because it robs the main character of all the Character Development from Jerk to Jerk with Heart of Gold he’s worked toward throughout the book.
I’ll spare you the full depth of my grumps in regard to his relationship with the princess. Suffice it to say I don’t think the guy was the one being dense here. The princess’ characterization in general seems… off. If she’d been just yanked out of the palace, her reaction to the slums and state of the kingdom might work. But she’s supposedly been traveling long enough to track down and hire Aaron in the first place, and it just doesn’t seem plausible the way she ping-pongs between “you should care about people!” and not having the first clue about what those people have to live with.
There’s also the minor detail that the tournament prize was supposed to be five thousand gold, a lifetime’s fortune to any commoner; yet it cost two hundred and fifty to get in, and there were supposedly enough commoners in there to make a big competition. Does not compute.
All told, I kept reading because the main character was interesting, but I was sitting on my hands waiting for the author to reveal/explain/ show something to fill in the worldbuilding plotholes, and it never happened. Drat.