Character Escapism: Sure, but How?
No matter the genre, people want to read about people. Get me caring about characters and I will buy anything, from Stephen King to Cormack McCarthy to Futurama. There is a line in the sand however—consider James Bond. In 26 films he has never died, never not saved the day, rarely legitimately cared or changed much as a person. We don’t watch these films for human interest so much as technical curiosity: yes, he’s going to get out of each increasingly sticky situation, but how?
Larry Correia’s Son of the Black Sword falls solidly into this category. It is action-packed, with the odds stacked against the hero despite his (partially-earned, partially-magic) exceptional fighting ability and commitment to justice. Though he realizes something radical about his past, it changes the hero little, and he reads basically as an automaton for duty/justice (there is even a magical reason for this). In his journey from champion to outlaw and back his internal state changes little, and he is too powerful for us to really believe he’ll ever lose a battle—it is again only a question of how. Two demons at once? A roomful of enemies? A team of sorcerors? A whole army? Sure—but how?
Dear Readers, this is not my kind of fantasy, though in my youth I enjoyed my share of Conan comics. This is escapism more radical than fantasy’s usual alternate time and place. It’s escapism of character—Correia’s hero is the impossible person many people (not to say teenage males) wish they could be: strong, exceptional, undefeatable, always doing what’s right even when it’s wrong. You don’t read them to learn about human nature so much as for a good yarn/stress relief.
That’s not to say stories like this can’t have something for everyone--Shadows of Self features a hero we rarely believe will fail (though he does experience real emotions), but his world is interesting enough, his supporting characters human enough, and his plot surprising enough that even those readers who aren’t looking for ego escapism get drawn in. Not so with Son of the Black Sword—while a few of Correia’s side characters go through profound changes, we don’t stay with them long enough to care much about it. His plot has a few twists built in, but they’re undeveloped, and without investing in the characters, they lack impact. The world is not particularly unique (aside from demons imprisoned in the sea)—the political/economic setup is familiar, the magic not well explained, and the cultural differences between peoples slight. The hero’s magic black sword is cool, but sounds a lot like Brandon Sanderson’s Nightblood (intelligent weapon the hero talks to, that kills all but the noblest who touch it).
In short, this is neither my kind of fantasy, nor does it have the bells and whistles that might give it broader appeal. If you, however, are into a little character escapism, or a male-centered story of blood and battle, you might just enjoy Son of the Black Sword.