Black Dogs, by Richard Lee Byers

It’s been a fair while since I read Richard Lee Byer’s first entry into the Iron Kingdoms, Murder In Corvis, which introduced the characters that would become the Black River Irregulars into the world of Skull Island Expeditions, Privateer Press’ fiction warehouse. The characters were already familiar to players of the Iron Kingdoms Full Metal Fantasy RPG as the introductory characters from the Fools Rush In scenario – ‘jack marshal Colbie Sterling, trollkin Gardek Stonebrow, arcanist Eilish Garrity, and alchemist Milo Boggs. Murder In Corvis established the four as a team as they worked outside the law to track down a killer that was carving a bloody legacy through Corvis’ undercity. Players of the Undercity board game are also up to snuff with Colbie and her crew, experiencing adventure as they fight their way through escalating missions. Today we take a step beyond the novella and take a look at Black DogsByer’s first full-length Iron Kingdoms novel, and return to the underbelly of Corvis to see what the crew are up to.

Black Dogsis the first in what we can only hope will be an ongoing series of novels chronicling the tales of the Black River Irregulars. The door is kicked open with a Khadoran bratya– a kayazycrime syndicate – sneaking into the catacombs of the sunken city and setting about establishing themselves as the new power in the seedy underbelly of Corvis by wiping out one of the existing gangs – The Patient Weavers – almost to a man. Gunmage Canice Gormleigh and her ogrun bokur Natak Warbiter narrowly survive, in part thanks to the timely intervention of Captain Colbie Sterling of the Black River Irregulars.

When follows is a story filled with a variety of protagonists and antagonist that somehow – despite the sheer number of characters – manages to make a connection with the reader for each. I knew going into the story that I liked the play between the hulking bounty hunter Gardek and the pompous investigator Eilish – both very good at what they do but approaching problems from clashing sides – and Menoth knows I’m a big fan of the almost-sociopathic Milo Bogs, but as the story expanded I found myself profoundly creeped out by Khadoran assassins Gridia and Fodor, laughing at the boorish yet lethal ironhead Olekse, and developing a real soft spot for Eilish’s paramour and physician Regan, and the small yet braver-than-he-realizes Pog.  I’m normally not a huge fan of ensemble books – my old man brain doesn’t like to have to track too many different simultaneous story arcs – but Byers managed to breath just the right amount of life into each character such that I was engaged, yet not so much that I felt any one character’s personal arc overshadowed anyone else’s.

Given how much of the story takes place in the Undercity – a metropolis below Corvis filled with buildings that have sunken into caverns interconnected by a maze of tunnels and catacombs – I was impressed that the story never felt claustrophobic, yet the ever-present gloom of poorly lit passageways and a world that never saw sunlight was impressed at every turn such that it actually took me awhile to realize that some parts of the story were taking place above ground. The story ranges from Corvis proper to more populated regions of the Undercity, through unmapped labyrinths replete with local gribblies waiting to devour wayward pedestrians, to gang strongholds, bring with it a lawless Wild West Frontier feel mixed an almost noir touch as the various crime syndicates maintain their uneasy balance of power until the Black Dogs turn up and start tipping the apple cart in a play for power.

I don’t want to spoil the story for any potential readers, but I went into Black Dogs a little dubious about the ensemble nature of the cast, and left very satisfied in Byers’ ability to take a dozen smaller tales, each with their own development and growth, and weave them into a grander narrative that takes the reader below ground for an adventure filled with acts of cunning and heroism, bravery and deceit, one or two overblown egos and a little helping of betrayal. When you and your crew are tasked with protecting a woman who had recently tried to kill you all, how long do you think you’ll last before you level a slug gun at her head?

Black Dogs is available in electronic format directly from Skull Island Expeditions, audiobook on Audible, and also in paperback format from various retailers who haven’t been enslaved by the Skorne Empire. It was a fun read, and is recommended for entertainment purposes. Not recommended is your looking for tips on living with a black labrador or poodle. Doberman, maybe.