Igor Ljubuncic’s The Betrayed
With almost all self-published novels, I find that the opening pages hold an overpowering burden of responsibility, acting as the gatekeepers to the rest of the novel and becoming the most important part of the entire piece. Dialogue, cadence, characterisation, even just a basic grasp of the English language; essentially a writers’ creative acumen is hidden amongst these opening pages. As readers it does not take us long to gain an insight into the writer’s overall ability, and though it may sound harsh, it is the quality of their introduction that determines if we make it to the second chapter.
Maybe it is just me, but I frequently find myself wondering if that dreaded elephant in the room, known as ‘vanity-publishing’, is going to rear its ugly head and deter me from continuing at all.
Having been drawn in by a title or an interesting cover, we then read the blurb and find ourselves nodding with approval with that, ‘OK so you’ve got my attention’ sparkle in our eyes; but it’s rare that any of this will be enough to see us past an awful and poorly written opening chapter. The truth is, that’s all we need to decide if this self-published author actually deserves our precious reading-time, because if they don’t then we’re bound to watch a DVD instead or maybe try again with a good old dependable Dickens.
Having agreed to review the first book in Igor Ljubuncic’s The Lost Words fantasy series, and therefore committed myself to reading it – or at the very least read enough to scramble together a worthwhile review that would reimburse him for the free signed copy; I was not only relieved but very pleasantly surprised to find that he did deserve mine – and now your – time.
Skipping leisurely through the prologue and then onwards, I was so engrossed by the storyline that I was several chapters in when I realised what I was doing and just how much fun I was having. This is testament to Igor’s fluid writing style, both succinct and easy to digest. The Betrayed is made up of short engaging chapters, which form the backbone of an epic fantasy story, told via several male protagonists, whom Igor introduces us to amidst his distinctive and deeply engaging world of the Territories. The narrative voice is gritty and mud-splattered, apt enough for a grim and dogmatic reality where the various creeds, corresponding to their various gods, loom over the land as real and immediate as Orwell’s ‘Big Brother is watching you’ maxim.
The narrative voice is gritty and mud-splattered, apt enough for a grim and dogmatic reality where the various creeds, corresponding to their various gods, loom over the land as real and immediate as Orwell’s ‘Big Brother is watching you’ maxim.
Reading this book I found myself reminiscing across fond childhood memories of other great fantasy stories, such as The Lord of the Rings, Dune, The Dragonbone Chair and Hawkmoon, each evoked and spliced into one, repackaged in the form of a new and original world with its own laws and intricacies, equally compelling as the age old tale of Frodo and his blummin’ ring.
I was particularly drawn to one of the five central characters. A prostitute named Adam who, having been wrongly accused and convicted for the murder of a recent client of his, is sentenced to death but reprieved on the eve of his execution in true Dostoevsky style. Adam finds himself enlisted as a ‘monarch’s man’ in a military regiment comprising hardened convicts, who have each been promised absolution from their crimes if they fight to defend their country. Despite his second chance, Adam is reminded that he has not been granted the status of a soldier,
Fail to report to the morning call, and you will be hanged. Fail to obey a command from one of your superiors, and you will be flogged. If you steal anything, you will lose a finger. If you rape anyone we’ll castrate you. If you go missing, you’ll be declared deserters, hunted down, and killed on the spot. There won’t be any trials or bargaining. You are now the monarch’s property and shall remain as such until the monarch releases you from your duties.
His regiment has been mustered as part of Eracia’s efforts to repel an impending attack from the neighbouring kingdom of Caytor; who – after being engaged in a protracted arms race – have finally decided to invade the Safe Territories, this time under the banner of a burgeoning religion known as Feor.
Adam soon realises his regiment of recidivists is being used to pick up the slack of their betters, encumbered by the menial tasks that Eracia’s professional army have no intention of carrying out themselves. Marooned within the ranks of real criminals, now he is forced to clean the crap-pits by day and defend himself against molestation by night. After being forbidden from training with weapons, he begins to suspect that their regiment will be used for little more than cannon fodder. When the mass of Caytorean warriors arrives and Adam’s regiment is ambushed and decimated, he is left as its only survivor.
A true pragmatist, Adam commandeers an Officer’s uniform from the body of a fallen comrade and assumes the role of an enlisted man, claiming to have been promoted to Lieutenant in the field. Made to prove his worth, he soon finds himself leading a small detachment of soldiers. Using nothing more than his ‘common whore’s sense’, he manages to capture a key enemy stronghold and successfully defends the position with an almost uncanny militaristic temperament, gleaned whilst ‘on the game’. Adam’s lack of humanity and his ferocity in fending off the Caytorean hordes, reveals a sadistic streak, which sees him decapitating the bodies of his defeated foes and sending them back across the border as foul warnings to any would-be invaders; swiftly granting him the moniker of, ‘Adam the Butcher’.
Ljubuncic has eloquently crafted a world brimming with both poverty and opulence, which stands side-by-side forever at odds with the other.
His world is textured with faithlessness and a devout religiosity, defining a reality where one might be mugged and killed in one city and just as easily worshipped like a god in another.
The superfluity of culture within each territory acts as a mere microcosm of the vast domains, ruled over by eccentric, despotic lords, each warring, whoring and outbidding the other in an attempt to obtain larger realms. This is a detailed world with a vivid landscape, populated by politicians, priests, traders, warriors and simple peasant folk, all surviving under a network of complex philosophies and fickle gods, forever changing and evolving to suit their needs.
Ljubuncic’s The Betrayed is a testament to the validity and role self-publishing now plays in the modern literary world.