DISCLAIMER: This review was an awkward one for me to write for many reasons. I wasn’t going to publish this after I wrote it. One of the primary reasons for my hesitation, naturally, that this is a book written by a author I am currently writing a book with (Larry Correia), and my review might be considered unbiased by some. This is a fair presumption, but inaccurate. Anyone who knows the reviewing process I used to perform while running Shiny Book Reviews understands I am pretty tough on every book, even those written by people I like and know personally. Secondly, Servants of War is being published by my own publisher and future employer, Baen Books. I can imagine people thinking “If he likes his new job, he’s going to be effusively positive about the book.” This is not the case and, I believe, not a fair assumption. I believe Baen Books wants honest, forthcoming reviews of upcoming releases. As evidenced by the following review, I’m willing to stake my future employment upon this belief.
Now, on to the review…
I picked up a copy of Servants of War by Larry Correia and Steve Diamond early via Baen Books’ eARC program (electronic Advance Reader Copy… a great way for a publisher to make even more money from a highly-anticipated book) and was not disappointed. The authors absolutely crushed it in this alternate history/timeline splice mash-up of magic and modern-ish warfare.
The setting is some alternate history/dimensional Russia, where magic is real and war… well, is war. The book opens with Illarion Glazkov, our intrepid hero, and his best friend hunting in the frozen north for their poor village. Think Siberian village so far away from Moscow that Moscow doesn’t even remember the village exists. Life is hard in the village but Illarion can’t really complain. He had a love interest names Hana, a solid family, and people who love him. Other than a severe case of near-sightedness, he pretty much has a life he cannot complain about.
So of course this all comes crashing to the ground when every single person in his village is slaughtered by a strange cat-like monster born straight from the ancient legends of his village. Everyone but Illarion, that is. Illarion survives and is found by a woman known as the Witch of the Woods, who heals him and sends him on a sacred mission. He swears to serve to make up for his village’s breaking of their word (cool scene involving the Witch and Illarion is here, but I don’t want to give away too much right now) and sets out to fulfill the ancient promise.
Okay, a little heavy on the trope here, but not entirely unreasonable. Tropes exist for a reason, am I right? Unfortunately for Illarion, he has no idea how to get to the city to serve the Tsar, so he stumbles onto a traveling wagon (guided by the Witch? Maybe…) and is taken to the city where he can join the Tsar’s forces in fighting against an evil nation trying to invade his country… we think. He gets recruited to join The Wall, an elite unit of men and women tasked with driving massive war machines to fight their enemies. These war machines are like nothing else, though, a mech built on machinery and magic.
Turns out Illarion is a freaking natural at driving one, but this is because of his particular nature… yes, tropes, I understand. Moving on…
Illarion is a cool character if you like the self-sacrificing hero’s journey, but the best character of the entire book is Kristoph Vals, a Secret Police investigator whose job is to root out all threats to the Tsar and to Kolakolvia. Kristoph is not a good guy. He’s a straight-up arrogant, evil bastard, but as the book goes on the reader starts to realize that while Kristoph is a villain, there are far worse villains in this world, and people like Kristoph are necessary to stop them from enslaving the world. Kristoph not only is serving his country to the best of his abilities, he’s also in the business of serving himself at the same time. Not for glory or riches, but for power. He is willing to do anything – and kill anyone – to further his own ambitions. Not normally someone you’d root for, but the authors do an excellent job of making him a compelling villain and slowly morphing him into a grayer character.
In this world created by Correia and Diamond, there is no black and white… other than Illarion, that is. It is a world of grays, always shifting, ever changing the more layers they pull back and reveal. What was evil and horrifying one chapter is revealed to be honorable (though still horrifying) in the next.
Correia’s ability to pull the reader in to any combat sequence without hammering away with exposition is on full display here. Diamond, a horror writer by trade, takes the reader into the deep, dark corners of the mind, to the realm where the characters try to deny their baser instincts and get punished for lying about it. I won’t even try to suggest this is a light read. This book is heavy on the psyche and drags the reader through the emotional blender. As previously mentioned, what once was right and just can be revealed to be a bitter lie, and vice versa. In war, there is no right or wrong, merely who is left. In Kolakolvia, this is evident from the moment Illarion first sets foot in the largest city of the country.
I do have a few complaints about this book, though none of it involve the writing abilities of either author. No, the first thing my brain went to while reading was Correia’s previous work in The Malcontents, a duology set in the Warmachine universe. I couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity, even though the similarities are merely cosmetic. I really felt this book could have been what The Malcontents had set out to be and, given the proper support from those behind the Warmachine publishing arm, really grown into something amazing.
Another complaint is Natalya Baston. As a character, I really liked her. She’s a freaking badass and one hell of a sniper. No, the complaint I have regarding her is the love interest angle with Illarion. I understand what would draw her to him as they grow to know one another, but it almost seems too pat for me. It felt almost rushed. If the authors had waited until the second book and had the two characters have a deep bond of friendship only in the first, then let the relationship morph into something more, then I wouldn’t be complaining. Time, I feel, would have allowed the reader to watch the dynamic between them as the duo slowly reveal secrets to one another while the ever-vigilant eye of Kristoph watches from afar, scheming and plotting the entire time. This could have added an extra layer of suspense to later novels (assuming there are more books set in this fascinating world).
However, minor complaints aside, this book is excellent in regards to pacing, story, and structure. Everyone’s actions are entirely reasonable and believable. The world is amazing, bleak and dark yet offering glimpses of hope throughout. Diamond’s dark and brooding style meshes really well with Correia’s, and the duo do a fantastic job of bringing the mythology of this world to life. The religion of the Three Sisters, the background, and the rise of a competing new religion is so believable I could almost feel the comparisons to the rise of Soviet Russia.
Overall, this book is rated an 8.5 out of 10. It’s a worthy addition to any library, and the mixture of fantasy and gritty World War One alternate history is something other authors have tried to do in the past and failed. The authors of Servants of War, on the other hand, are wildly successful in their endeavors and I am anxiously waiting for a sequel to drop.