I read this book in French, as this was the language in which it was written and also because I was given a free copy for writing a review! This is a rather unusual book, the first volume of a series called the cycle of Syffe (where Syffe is both the main character and the name of a tribe), well-written by a young author, although the style is at time a wee bit heavy. As for instance in “Les mains sur les hanches, mes yeux balayèrent l’horizon qui semblait s’étaler de la pointe de mes bottes jusqu’au bout du monde.”
The story in itself borrows to some usual memes of the genre, from following a group of young people (very young in this case), forced into dramatic circumstances by the upheaval of their world, here the death of a king leading to a breakup of his kingdom, and meeting unexpected tutors who will turn them into heroes of sort, if they survive the training. The closest books I can think of are (my favourite) Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion (without the über-religious aspects [so far!]) and Glen Cook’s Black Company, which both follow mercenary companies in a fragmented world at war. A little bit of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorn as well, since in the later a young kid is driving a band of bandits. And not to forget Joe Abercrombie for the rather similar gritty style. (Gritty enough to make me decide after a few chapters that this was definitely not a young adult novel, as I had doubts about it first.)
The book, first of the cycle, thus follows the misadventures of a very young orphan, and I repeat “very young”, because this is an issue with the story, when 8 to 10 years old are shown in situations and with attitudes that do not sound likely. Even for orphans, even in a medieval world with short lifespans and plenty of economic reasons to turn kids into cheap labour. From spy, to stable boy, to child-soldier. Without turning to spoilers, there are also a bucketful of fortune reversals in the book, meaning that the surroundings and circumstances keep changing, sometimes really fast, sometimes quite slowly, as with the years when Syffe acquires fighting skills from an old mercenary from a tribe of free and deadly fighters. The pace is still good enough for the book to be a page-turner that I read in less than a week! And the few battle scenes are realistic in the Abercrombie referential, that is, with everyone scared and unclear why they are there. There is also some magic involved, which is always a risk in the plot, but apart from a lengthy passage on a malevolent Dream with much too real consequences (nothing to do with Tel’aran’rhiod in the Wheel of Time!), the author handles it quite well, maintaining an ambivalence in Syffe about his super-natural experiences, supported by one of his mentors’ freethinker ethics. As for the completeness of the background, i.e., the universe imagined by the author, it often feels too provincial, too local, with the incoming wars between the local lords sounding very much parochial, although the scope gets gradually wider, along with the maturation of Syffe and the darkening of the overall atmosphere. After finishing the book, I read that seven volumes in total are planned in the cycle!