A Conversation in Blood (Egil & Nix)
by Paul S. Kemp
Cover Artist: John Picacio
Review by Robert Bee
Del Rey Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553392005
Date: 24 January 2017
A Conversation in Blood is the third book in a series that recounts the adventures of two colorful rogues, Egil, the hammer wielding priest of a forgotten god, and Nix, a thief with a smattering of magic and an array of magical gewgaws.
The adventure starts with Nix trying to prop up Egil's spirits, which have been crushed by the events in the last novel. Nix's plan involves exploring the significance of some rune-covered golden plates, which they discovered in a previous adventure. The plates turn out to be far more than they bargained for; they are the Great Spell that recreated the World, and certainly not a happy distraction for Egil as the twosome rapidly run afoul of a wizard and have encounters with the Thieves Guild.
Kemp has modernized the traditional Sword and Sorcery tale, with a group of likeable recurring characters, making the story much like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Josh Whedon, and buddy action movies mixed together. The dialogue is reminiscent of a contemporary TV series, with lots of clever, witty repartee. The story contains a great deal of profanity, violence, and hints of sex, another modernization of pulp sword and sorcery.
Egil and Nix carry out their adventures in Dur Follin, a well realized city in the mode of Leiber's Lankhmar. Egil is a large, honorable priest, quite similar to Fafhrd, the big barbarian, Nix is the small wily thief, with a little magical knowledge, similar to the Grey Mouser.
Despite the obvious influences, Kemp makes this genre his own in many ways, and the novel is more than a pastiche. Although Leiber is humorous at points, Kemp's humor is far more relentless and moves the action along. I enjoyed most of the humor, but a few of the jokes became repetitive; for example, in an early chapter there were endless cracks and japes about the Slick Tunnel's eel soup, to the point of turning the joke painfully corny.
The novel's monstrous antagonist, the Afterbirth, is a leftover from the Great Spell, which is so powerful that it remakes the world. Wizards find its reality-altering powers irresistible and have apparently used it more than once. The Afterbirth is an intriguing villain, with an understandable motivation, and the sections from the monster's point of view are some of the novel's stronger sections.
The city is not as brilliantly realized as Lankhmar, but Kemp's world building is professional, and his detailing of his city gives his protagonists a lively landscape and populace to interact with.
Egil and Nix fight the monster over and over again, at the beginning and end of the novel, like a bloody groundhog day, reliving the same time period while losing to the monster and dying over and over. The heroic sacrifice of a peripheral character makes it possible to break the cycle and hopefully hide the Great Spell for a long time, saving Egil and Nix's world.
If you like this genre, you will find the novel compelling. Kemp isn't reinventing the genre, but A Conversation in Blood impresses as an entertaining, solid novel of commercial fantasy. Kemp writes and plots far better than most of the sword and sorcery writers I've read over the years, such as the endless sword and sorcery tales from the 70s, i.e. Brak the Barbarian and the like. Overall, the novel is highly recommended for fans of Kemp and action packed fantasy.