Today I am delighted to be reviewing an arc of Blackthorne by Clayton W. Snyder which is out in the world TODAY!! Blackthorne is a bloody fantastic book that I have been chewing over for the last few weeks, and despite the length of this review, I still don’t feel I have done it justice. All I can say is that you should absolutely pick this one up and give it a go, because it really is an experience!
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Orphan. Conman. Conscript. Inmate. Haunted by the ghosts of his past, Mattias Temple, a failed cadre necromancer, is mauled by fate. When a rogue military squad kidnaps the governor and threatens the city with a magical plague, he has a shot to redeem a lifetime of mistakes and be the one thing he never thought possible: A hero.
Freed from prison, paired with Bridget, a Blackthorne operative, he sets out to right the one crime that truly haunts him.
As the body count rises Mattias finds himself neck-deep in trouble and drowning in ghosts. Hunted by the mercenary company he betrayed and facing the horrors of feral witchcraft, the question remains: who is Mattias Temple, and what does he want? Revenge, or something more?
WHAT. A. BOOK.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a book leave me with so much to chew on, and with a review that has fought me every step of the way. Not because it isn’t bloody fantastic, because it is. I was sold on the premise from the beginning, it sounded so different that I just had to pick it up, and the book itself blew any and all expectations out of the water. But, because it is a book that doesn’t want to easily fit in any mould – treading the boundaries between military SF with cyberpunk elements, and fantasy with witchcraft, and more than a sprinkling of horror with eldritch critters and some skin-tingling body horror. And because it leads you astray with twists and turns, that make you question what you know, what you understand, and I know that when I reached the ending (and what an ending) my mouth was open as everything clicked into place.
Bloody fantastic…with lots to chew on. Which is how I like it.
Snyder’s character work is second to none. Cold West was my first real taste of what this author could do with his protagonists, both in terms of voice, but also in making a character who straddles the moral border or breaks it completely, and yet is still so painfully raw and human that you connect with them and end up rooting for them. That is very much the case here with Mattias Temple, in fact, I would argue that Mattias has taken all those elements to a whole new level in Blackthorne.
“Men lie. Some men lie for gain. Some men lie because the truth cuts.”
Mattias Temple is a complex character who infuriates and intrigues and compels. Born with the ability to see ghosts, he is set apart, special. Gifted.
Cursed, might be a better term for it.
Blackthorne is a book of two halves. In the first we follow Mattias as he grows up, and while the pacing in this bit is a little jumpy, it works really well and feels very much like it should if someone was recounting their childhood and youth, bouncing between key moments. Snyder also plays it cleverly, because this is where our sympathy for Mattias is born, from the brutal opening where we experience his life with his abusive father and how that comes to a violent end (that opening has one hell of an impact), to Mattias life in the facility run by Blackthorne where he is supposed to be safe while he learns to develop his ‘gift’. Instead, it is little more than a prison, and the ‘safety’ is dependent on your behaviour and development, and you root for him to escape, and find a life for himself.
Except, Mattias is never entirely free. We see him make a life of sorts for himself, and this establishes that he is already cast in shades of grey (this period also shows another use for necromancy, and while the morality of it isn’t great, it was a great addition to the worldbuilding), but we see him find love and trying to see a future for himself. Until it all crashes down and he ends up in prison because of his own actions. And I think that is another reason why Mattias lands so well and hits home as a character, because all of his choices, no matter how they are shaped by his gift, by Blackthorne, and the immediate situation have consequences. He makes mistakes (lots of them – and honestly there are moments I want to shake him), he drifts and hides from the truth of what he’s doing and who is, and it’s just so damn human against the backdrop of witches and monsters and necromancy that it works.
The second part of the book is a lot smoother, as the story really gets rolling – and Mattias is given the chance to redeem himself. It’s not a straight path and made more crooked by Mattias himself – but it’s really here, that it feels as though everything has come together, and it feels like he’s forced to look in the mirror for the first time and face himself. I loved Mattias as a character all the way through the book, but in this latter part, it felt as though we were peeling back all the layers and I was hooked. And the way his arc plays out is fantastic. It would have been easy for redemption to be smooth and straightforward, but it wouldn’t have been true to Mattias, and instead, the rough, spiked edges of how Mattias’ arc comes to an end is a fitting tribute to the character and the ending just hits home on so many levels.
On the other end of the character spectrum, we have Amon. Mattias isn’t a good guy by anyone’s definitions, but he is a sympathetic character, there are reasons for who and how he is that make us connect with him. Amon has none of that. Well, no…that’s not entirely true, when we first met him, I thought that he was an going to be an a-hole, but that the development in how they worked together would shift that. I was wrong, and I can’t say I am disappointed, because Amon turned out to be one of the vilest villains I’ve read recently. He is dangerous and clever, and it feels as though there is no boundary that he won’t step beyond, and it is quickly established that there are few who can or will stand up to him. He works fantastically as a foil against Mattias, and not just because they are set against one another, but it establishes that in the shadow of his darkness – Mattias is all different shades of grey. You root for Mattias…you root for Amon to meet his end, and Snyder plays that out, as the two of them play a deadly game of cat and mouse with collateral damage and twists and turns, and I for one couldn’t put it down as it reached the crescendo because I needed to see it end.
Another character I really enjoyed was Bridget, the Blackthorne operative that Mattias ends up being paired with. In many ways she was the catalyst for Mattias’ development in the latter half, and the dynamic between them, coloured with distrust, preconceived notions and prejudices and the weight of Blackthorne is fantastic. It is a relationship that is forged under duress and felt very real to that experience. I also felt that Bridget humanised both Blackthorne and the Hardlanders, both to us as the reader and to Mattias. Here was someone who belonged to two groups that had been the ‘enemy’ in some form or another, but who was very much herself as well, alive and trying to survive, grieving for what had been lost, and trying in her own way to understand someone who was technically the ‘enemy’. She is also a great mirror for Mattias, as they had both loved and lost and chosen revenge, and yet taken different paths to end up where they were.
She was also bad ass.
I think my one and only complaint with regards to the characters, and the relationships is that I would have liked to have seen a few more scenes with Mattias and Nessa. However, it also feels like the truest thing about Mattias – the one certainty that he has about himself and his life, that he loves her, and that we have about Mattias. It was also one of the elements that had my mouth dropping towards the end of the book. So, yeah, it might have been nice to see more of them together, but Snyder clearly did an excellent job of establishing that relationship in my mind because of the impact that it had.
Snyder’s worldbuilding is also spectacular in Blackthorne, especially with balancing the different SF and fantasy elements to create something that felt detailed and whole, but also gave the feeling that we were just scratching the surface and that there was so much more to discover. There is also a feeling of understatement with a lot of the worldbuilding elements, in that we are given what we are needed to understand the world and what we are seeing – and some of the descriptions are so visceral – without getting too bogged down in the details, which could happen especially with the technology like the chip Mattias has and the Necronet, as well as the insectoid vehicles and machinery.
‘A thopter moved overhead, sending images of the battlefield. A bioengineered orb with eyestalks and teeth, Blackthorne filled it with hardware and a connection.’
I love this style of worldbuilding, which gives us more than enough to build a picture and understanding of the setting and everything in it and trusts us to fill in the gaps. Are there elements that I would like to see a bit more of? Yes. I would love to spend more time with the witches and see more of their powers – but the way they are shown, through the war, and later with Bridget, is tantalising and the fact that we don’t see more establishes both it’s otherworldliness, but also how it compares against the growing, technological influence of Blackthorne. Which is another element I must mention, often when you gave magic and technology in a book, they are set against one another, and while there are elements of that here, there is also more of a focus of bringing the two elements together – and again the pairing of Mattias and Bridget is a great reflection of this. But, on a more general level we see Blackthorne using ‘gifted’ members and witches alongside their technology, necromancy is enhanced with technology, and it just adds another dimension to the way this world and society works – and again is another example of that blurring of boundaries.
‘Then the dogs came. Nightmares of wet flesh with the heads of spiders, they slavered as they came, braying. I fired two more shots, and a dog slewed to the side, slamming into the wall and taking the legs out from another.’
One of my favourite elements of the worldbuilding though was the eldritch style monsters that we encounter, especially in the second half of the book. Firstly, because Snyder does such an excellent job of visualising them, that had my skin crawling at times – but also because I just love these kinds of monsters. Also, this is another example of seeing the magic and supernatural blurring with technology, as we see someone transformed into something less than human.
‘…body extruding fleshy tentacles as he came on. Whatever he was now, it was not human. Fear came back to me, cold and heavy, and I backpedaled.’
The ending got me.
Snyder keeps us guessing about certain elements throughout the entire book, and I will admit I was wondering how it was going to all be wrapped up. It turns out it was with one of the most gobsmacking, surprising endings, that I could never have seen coming, but which was a perfect, crazy ending to a book that had been different all the way through. I think it was the ending that I have been chewing on the most since finishing the book, because it left me just sitting there at the end and going ‘oh’ in all the best ways.
As might be expected from a book with necromancy and eldritch horrors, and everything else that makes Blackthorne so different and compelling, this is a brutal book in places. The opening is probably the most shocking, but there are moments particularly in the crescendo when the grimness shines through, with blood and violence, and some very dark moments. However, these moments are well balanced with a wonderful level of snark, dark humour and some lighter levity; this paired with the fact that this is a very human story, however, otherworldly the backdrop may be, means those darkest moments are incredibly powerful and essential to the story. And these, paired with all the elements, as well as Snyder’s compelling prose made Blackthorne a book that I had to read from start to finish, completely enthralled by what I was reading.
I’m coming to realise that Snyder books are the kind that linger with you long after you’ve read the last page, gnawing at you, making you think, until you find the marrow of the story. Even just writing this review has made me want to read it again…and again, and I am certain that I will find different elements and layers with each read through.
Blackthorne is absolutely one of those books that you need to experience for yourself to fully understand the impact that this story has, and be prepared to be consumed and entertained, and for your heart to be put through the wringer. You’ll find yourself rooting for questionable characters and questioning the things that you think you know as the story progresses. A fantastic read for anyone who loves genre-blurring worlds and stories, which are character driven and pack one hell of a gut punch on multiple levels.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.