Book Review: A Sellsword’s Compassion by Jacob Peppers

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.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: A Sellsword’s Compassion by Jacob Peppers

  1. For comparison, I’ll note that the Cartomancy series goes the opposite way on “story” vs “worldbuilding” from this one. It’s got all sorts of interesting worldbuilding, especially the details of “how the magic works”. It also does a good job of not forgetting little details (a lot of little details are changed, or “proven wrong”, but that is used as plot points instead of just having the details forgotten). It had a bunch of ideas I didn’t like, but it did a very good job of examining what the consequences of those things would be, and making a story around them (even if the story is full of bleh).

    As to the problems you’re describing in this story, it sounds the author was trying too hard to follow the (stupid) modern writing advice, like “a story needs conflict (combat, where the MC is the underdog) to work”, or “if you give Frodo a lightsaber, you need to give Sauron the death star”. Some of the root ideas behind the advice is _sometimes_ useful, but in general most of the modern writing advice is pretty stupid if followed as intended by most who repeat it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Eeeeh, sounds a little to dark for my tastes and wow that is saying something considering my tastes in anime. But seriously, one of my biggest pet peeves about a story is when the main character(s) aren’t allowed to accomplish anything, ever. You want to tell the story of an underdog? Sure, go ahead. But I do not want to read a 300ish page book (or play an 80+ hr game, I am looking at you FFXIII) where the protagonist spends the entire time being smacked around, hounded at every corner, suffering defeat after defeat only for them to get to the end of the story and have the bad the bad guy go “Hah! And all your struggles were pointless because of x!”. The good guys have to *win* sometimes, or what’s the point? From the above description, this book sounds like an angstfest with an unsatisfactory ending. Hard pass, my real life can be depressing enough. I read to get a break from that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I canceled the evil plan just before you got here, because my terminal illness won’t let me see it to fruition.”

      *Villain passes away*

      *Hero, convinced by the villain, carries out the evil plan.*

      Not exactly my cup of tea either. Maybe a good enough execution could save it, but a mediocre execution of a simple generic good beating evil plot is a safer bet than hoping an artsy plot will be executed well enough.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Even there, it’s the execution that matters. If the hero is continually losing or getting injured in blatantly contrived or “just to show it’s a dark and realistic setting” ways, despite all preparation, prior character building, and informed attributes… that’s not “too dark and edgy”, that’s just “poor quality and SoD breaking”. I don’t like dark or edgy stories, but I have read some good ones. I also don’t like the hero losing on a regular basis, but it can be done well (look at Dungeon Keeper Ami, where Sailor Mercury accidentally becomes a dark lord… technically. of course, she’s still trying to be a hero, even if no one believes her, so she’s got the good guys and the bad guys constantly out to stop her)

      Liked by 1 person

    3. only for them to get to the end of the story and have the bad the bad guy go “Hah! And all your struggles were pointless because of x!”.

      It was a fairly common trope in 90’s videogames for the protagonists to find out that all of the action they’d been taking to thwart the antagonist furthered the antagonist’s goals.

      On the other hand, due to the nature of videogames, the protagonists at least got to think they were winning up to that point. Y’know, since GAME OVER was really the only kind of loss that meant anything.

      Maybe the reason it didn’t work in the book is because the author tries but doesn’t quite get how to run a Xanatos Gambit (or even a Batman Gambit) on his own protagonists?

      Liked by 1 person

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