S.J. Hartland
Dark Blade Publishing (2018)
ISBN 9780648437208
Reviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (5/19)

“The 19th Bladesman” is the first book in the Shadow Sword saga, an amazing new epic fantasy series by S.J. Hartland. Epic indeed – this story is first-class fantasy all the way.

As a bonded warrior chosen by the ancient gods, it is Kaell’s duty to protect the kingdom in a centuries-old war. It is also his destiny to die young.  But, when an imprisoned ancient god escapes confinement, he draws Kaell into his web of deceit. “The 19th Bladesman” is a tale of epic proportions, where kings, lords, ghouls, warriors, princesses, high priestesses and gods all vie for power and control. Hearts will be broken. Allegiances will falter. New alliances will form. Prophecy says the 19th bladesman will break and bow before his enemy, putting the entire kingdom at risk. Can Kaell escape his fate while remaining loyal to his lord and his gods? Or have they forsaken him?

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I have to say I love everything about this story. First of all, the writing is brilliant!  Hartland is a natural storyteller and makes it look effortless, weaving a complex layered tale that is polished, sophisticated, engaging, and intoxicating. The author’s voice is distinctive, revealing parts of her own personality through clever subtleties, humor and even poetry! There is also a darker side to her writing in which she also stands out. The absolute brutality in the battle scenes, the torture, the sorcery – all executed with a style that compels the reader eagerly forward. Staggering betrayals will sideswipe readers as unexpected plot twists and ever-changing alliances keep you reading well into the night. The story progresses so rapidly it doesn’t feel at all like a 600+ page read.  In fact, I noticed that while I was eager to see where the final pages of this first installment would take me, my reading pace (subconsciously?) slowed and I was more than a bit sad to come to the end.

As captivating as I find the complex world building and plot, the characters really make the story for me. They are well-developed, intriguing and feel genuine to the medieval era. They each battle their own demons. Some struggle with the need for approval, and a longing to be loved, while others push down their emotions and hide behind their duty. Some are selfish, deceptive and calculating, and still others are just pure evil.  The genius in these characters is that they are all guaranteed to surprise the reader.  Just when you think you know someone the author pulls the rug right out from under you. Hartland does a great job building her characters.

A couple of things I would like to have seen are a list of characters and a map of this fantastical world.  I have an almost ritualistic approach to reading a fantasy novel in that I like to study the characters to get a feel for “who’s who” and who I can expect to meet.  I also enjoy the visual of a map so I can see the world spread out before me. That said, Hartland does a remarkable job creating memorable characters readers won’t soon forget and guiding the reader to visualize her world through her vivid descriptions.

“The 19th Bladesman” by S.J. Hartland is an exciting beginning to an epic fantasy adventure, certain to climb its way to the top of the fantasy charts. Love, duty, betrayal, adventure, magic, epic battles – this books features the best parts of all these elements. I highly recommend this novel and look forward to “The Last Seer King,” the next book in the Shadow Sword series.