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Beneath a Brass Sky

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Ulfric Halehorn is a sellsword that believes in the sanctity of the contract. He’s also rekindled an old grudge, incited a riot, and landed himself in jail on enough counts to see himself hung twice. In the midst of this, he somehow managed to win a lucrative contract to transport a mysterious crate across the Brasslands to Kush.

He’d be better off if he hadn’t.

Days into the journey, Ulfric learns that the job is more than it seems, and that he carries with him the spark that may touch off a revolution that could burn across a city, and perhaps an entire region. Knowing this, Ulfric sees a chance to atone for breaking another contract nearly a decade ago — one that cost another city its freedom and its people their lives; an act that still haunts him to this day.

But the Brasslands is a vast land, filled with fugitives, and wild beasts, and nameless things that lurk in the low dark. In those wastes also rides another — one charged with snuffing out the same revolution that Ulfric aims to set afire. And as these rivals drive towards their opposing goals, a storm of steel and blood is building on a bleak horizon.

440 pages, Kindle Edition

Published October 26, 2020

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About the author

Eli Steele

6 books12 followers
I'm a husband, father, kayaker (love my hobie), and fantasy and sci-fi author.

Blood & Iron is my current fantasy project. Part 1 is Free on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XCTWXLH/

Join my MAILING LIST for Notifications of New Releases: https://mailchi.mp/770ef93e207a/elist...

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Profile Image for Set Sytes.
Author 29 books50 followers
October 22, 2021
"I just think sometimes people deserve better."
"I think sometimes people deserve worse."

I've often seen people looking for "The fantasy equivalent to Blood Meridian." Well, folks, here it is. In fact, I would be astonished if Eli Steele wasn't a fan of Blood Meridian, or Cormac McCarthy in general, because the influence here feels worn on its sleeve.

Not that this book isn't entirely original. The world here is at least as influenced by Africa and the Middle East as it is the American Southwest, the period seeming more one of antiquity, from Bronze Age to Classical - with flourishes from the Dark Ages and Middle Ages - than a time of the Old West and American Frontier, despite plentiful themes, tropes and tones recognisable here of these latter two. Shemaghs replace cowboy hats; swords and bows and godhammers replace six shooters. The setting is the barren wastes where people go to die, the people outcasts and wanderers and the ill-fated of their time, the time that of some harsh aeon past where villains reaved and heroes died in the desert winds. For the particulars don't matter: the desert is no time, or all time.

This not a plot book, and not even really a character book. It is a world book. It is a journey book; the whole book is in fact a journey: grim and dark, haunting and awesome, beautiful and bloody. Some people (like me) love this, some don't. So I'm telling you now. You don't read a book like this for the twists and intrigues of a plot, you read it for the world, for the land itself and all it is filled with.

Here Steele delivers something I've never seen before, all richly breathing in intelligent and baroque McCarthy-esque prose. The Brasslands: a wild, hopeless, half-desolate world of desert and dust, badlands peppered with the occasional mudbrick settlement or crude fort or rare oasis where you're about as welcome by the locals as an arrow to the knee. Lands populated by aurochs and ibex, vultures and giant rocs, desert wolves and scaled eagles, bats and hyenas and dragonkin. And the people? Scavengers and soldiers, warpainted natives and prospectors and travelling troupes. And the damned, of course. All the wretched damned.

I've never seen a book like this before, and I'm very glad I read it. I hope to one day read a follow-up by the author - I'm sure there are many adventures left to tell, and much more of the world to discover than the Brasslands.

A few stray, minor notes:

- Lots of spitting, lots of "cut him an eye".
- True to Cormac McCarthy, expect to see unlikely words used often, such that might have you looking for a dictionary: words like shemagh, sounder, brindle, xerocole, caravansary, coterie.
- Not always clear who is talking (also takes after Blood Meridian in this regard, but is definitely easier than BM).
- Complex, often obtuse worldbuilding. Don't expect things to be patiently and clearly explained to you. There are a lot of names: characters, peoples, places. I often didn't know what was being talked about, but I figured it was worldbuilding that I wasn't required to understand, and I was mostly right, although sometimes I was left feeling rather left in the dark in this completely new world.
- Steele is best in his description of land and creature and setting/atmosphere; this is where the book shines, and keeps its focus. It can falter a marginal amount in other aspects (such as dialogue and characterisation).
- Something I stumbled on regularly (but only in a very minor way), which was common in the prose, is what I felt was an overuse of ", and"; when it occurred 2 or 3 times a sentence, I felt like in these instances it'd be smoother if either one comma or one and was removed, if not the sentence rewritten in some other way. But this nitpick may well not bother anyone else, or they even might like it.
- Italics are frequently used in dialogue in a way that seems a little at odds with the feel/tone of the prose. I felt the dialogue relied too much on italics and honestly in my opinion would be served better if almost all of them were removed.

I'll let samples of Steele's prose fill out the rest of my review: it'll do more to make your mind up than anything I could write.

"They sent out a hunting party an hour before making camp in a place as flat as an anvil’s face. Blackbriar fires blossomed to life, fed by the taproots laced with resin. The winds moaned in, laying the flames flat against cobblestones polished by the breath of the gods. Sparks and embers tumbled off into the perpetual night. In that vast expanse, far to the west, a solitary fire winked to life. The men eyed the blazon warily. A sense of foreboding settled in.
In time, the hunters returned with a clubbing of spiny-tailed tarragons as long from tip to tail as a stud tarpan. As they told it, the dowser had found them with his rod, and so they’d dug them up from their long rest. The men stretched the primitive creatures out on the floor of the badlands and commenced to skinning and dressing them out. Toes curled and tails quivered from side to side, even though the petty dragons were dead as old bones."

"Their faces were slaked yellow and green, and looked apparitional in those flashes that came on as bright as high noon. The bronze and iron of their gear glinted blue as they chinked along. The hoofclops sounded strangely hollow against the ground. And somewhere far away, some wretched thing gave a shriek. Ulfric’s hackles stood on end. He curled his fingers around the hilt of his blade.
Drawing his brass, he aimed it at the black east and waited for a wash of light. When it came, he saw in that moment the shape of the dunes rising high and wild and closer than he’d expected. Twisting in the saddle, he did the same behind him. A jagged white whipstrike cracked across the sky. A flat horizon winked to life and then it was gone. And again the second time. But on the third flash, a pair of silhouettes shattered the expanse. His heart fluttered in his chest. He shuddered. For the next hour, he rode backwards in the saddle, but never did he see them again."

"In his dreams, he was back in the caldera, floating in the crystal pool. Sucking in a deep breath, he dove down until the water darkened and pressed against the drums of his ears. His lungs burned. If ever there was a bottom, he couldn’t reach it.
When he surfaced, his host lay dead on the shore, just as they had on the killing field. Flies snarled about them. The air was rich with death. At the water’s edge squatted the august king, red on yellow with chips of green.
Halehorn ran a hand through his hair. Water trickled down his face. Gods, it felt good. “What are you doing here?”
He gazed up at the sky for a time, listening. “. . . Best you wake up. Already they move against you.” Standing, he faded into the gloom.
Ulfric sat upright in the cool of the night with the man’s last words crisp in his ears. His head throbbed. Clenching his fist, he felt the dull ache of the gash. It never hurt in his dreams. Adjusting his shemagh, he choked down a dusty breath and took in the blackness complete. Blackness complete . . .
In the distance, the howl of the winds. Somewhere nearby, the sound of lapped water. Blackness complete . . . The fire. He snapped his head around, searching for it, but it was gone. Guttered out. He jumped to his feet. “Up, up, up – let’s go, let’s go! Get your asses up! Let’s go!” As he shouted and shook them from their sleep, he watched a ghastly silhouette rise up. It stretched out its great leathery mantle and lolled out a tongue that dripped and glistened by the light of the moon peeking out of the clouds. The creature studied him with cunning eyes that seemed to reason.
One of the sellswords rose and came face to snout with the demon and gave a bloody shriek. With a hiss, it raised its wings and lumbered off into the night. Four throaty flaps and it was gone.
Not a quarter league out, in a lull in the skirling gusts, a war cry called back."

"The stench of mud and stagnant water was so exotic in Ulfric’s nose it smelled honey sweet. Cattails and sawsedge and carrizo cane crowded the shallows. They hissed and swayed and whispered reedy secrets to the wind. Frogs croaked and damselflies droned, their glimmering viridian wings flittering here and there, chased about by larks. On the far bank, a crocodile lazed in the evening sun.
Upslope rose date palms surrounded by thick blankets of cretica, with their prickly thorns and purple flowers and little fruits, through which paths beaten out by bare feet twisted. A group of boys armed with lanterns and frogspears laughed and jostled down the road. When they saw the wayfarers, they swung wide and cut them cautious eyes.
Between the lake and the village was a field carved with canals. There grew thick stands of sugarcane three armspans tall. Workers hauled stalks out over their shoulders while others sang and chopped with their broad caneblades. Across the road, a pair of aurochs circled a sugar mill, grinding out barrels of sweet juice. Beyond lay an olive grove and a press, but there were no dwellings outside the mudbrick walls.
The walls themselves were troweled over with pale yellow stucco. Shards of flint and obsidian covered a topcourse that stopped just above the cane, though the towers on the corners and at the gatehouse were half again as tall. Sentries with cane bows and cane spears and cane shields watched them approach. One stepped into the gap and addressed them in a harsh desert tongue."

"They slipped out of the village of cane beneath a roiling sky. Blue lightning flickered through the clouds. Bolts shivered and struck the earth, casting it as bright as noonlight for heartbeats at a time. In one flash, they saw the pack shadowing them in the distance. In another, they watched a herd of gazelles ghosting across the basin, not certain if their hooves ever even scuffed the ground.
The buckles and rings and bits of polished iron on their gear glinted like little blue flames. Looking out across his host, Halehorn found their eyes were like embers sunken in their skulls. They were specters every one, fiends called up from the low hells to wander the wastelands for this moment in time.
The lightning popped so close that the hairs on their arms stood on end. They stopped and stowed the metals they bore on the pack animals to keep from being smote by the gods.
When the little pebbles fell, Ulfric swore he heard the land heave out a sigh. They shimmered in the air like sapphires cast across the firmament. Pale blue stones pattered the ground until it was cloaked in melting ice.
As dawn broke across the basin, they saw a rock formation with a broad overhang, so they quickened their pace and arrowed towards it. The wind roared across the expanse, veering the animals off course in its strongest gusts. The brindle slunk under the roan’s belly, matching her strides to the horse’s gait, weaving between her legs, trying to keep the ice from pelting her bony head.
They galloped under the shelter as the storm turned wild and the hail grew large as lemons. There, they hobbled their mounts and slept among the rubble like lizards until the tempest passed. Around midday, they set off again."
Profile Image for Bob McGough.
Author 6 books22 followers
October 31, 2021
This was recommended to me as 'the fantasy Blood Meridian' and that was really a very good description! I have read BM, and was haunted by its imagery and violence while never really falling in love. This book however captures much of that same feel, that same artistry, while leaving me much more fulfilled. Fans of the Prince of Nothing trilogy should also like this too.
Profile Image for Francis Blair.
Author 16 books14 followers
December 29, 2020
Tamarisks and amaranth clustered around shallow depressions where maybe water once pooled. Maybe one day it would again. Or maybe they too would pale away. Here began a land of dead and dying things.

I don't often have trouble describing a book that I've read in concrete terms, but for weeks now I've grappled with how exactly to put my thoughts about Beneath a Brass Sky into words. Was this literary fiction written with a brush of fantasy to it, or a fantasy novel written as an ode to the lyrical roots from whence the genre came? Was this a low-fantasy western without the guns, or a high-fantasy epic told so subtly that its magic and mysticism were but a hint upon a breeze that had already passed me by? Was this a good book? Was it enjoyable? Did it leave me changed in small ways that I'm only just beginning to comprehend?

Actually, I can answer those last three, because the answer to all of them is one and the same: Yes, yes, and yes.

This is the story of the mercenary Ulfric Halehorn, twice a deserter and far from the lands of his birth, and yet this story isn't about him. This is the story of Spero, a banker who is both more and less than he seems, who tasks Ulfric's company with transporting the bank's interests across the great and savage Brasslands—but this story isn't really about him, either. This is the story of the Huntsman, a peacekeeper who is the most dangerous, terrible thing in the world: an evil man who believes himself righteous. Though the story isn't really about him either, of course.

Rather, this is a story where the journey is as important as the destination, and world itself is as much a character as those that live their lives upon its surface. The Brasslands, which appear modeled much after Africa and the Middle East here in our own world, have a personality that despite their inspiration is entirely their own, one that changes from moment to moment, page to page. Be it endless wastes of sand, or fields of fire and smoke, or places where short grasses and hyenas play, this is a world that felt as vibrant and real as the people crossing it.

And the characters truly were vibrant. Halehorn is driven by his past decisions, haunted by the tragedies that he's witnessed, and guilt-ridden by the choices he did or didn't make. With each step in their journey, some of his history or personality was peeled back, revealing another layer, and I was always eager to see what the next turn or bend brought for him and Spero. Sometimes danger, sometimes revelation, and sometimes—all too rarely—a bit of joy.

In the end, this book was not at all what I expected when I picked it up, but I'm so glad I did. It was dark, and brooding, and at times forced me to look at the most depraved aspects of humanity. Yet I wouldn't give up that journey for anything in the world. This is a book for lovers of fantasy who demand more out of their stories than simply heroes and magics and warring nations. For while all those things are present here, they are subtler, more refined, more... real.

This is fantasy as I imagine Cormac McCarthy might write, though thankfully lighter on the symbolism and the endless description. Steele is not McCarthy; thankfully he is his own thing entirely, and his book is literary fantasy as I want it to be. This is a story of tragedy and triumph, of death and life and rebirth. This is is the tale of what it means to be Beneath a Brass Sky.

Where prayers go unanswered, and cries go unheard, and people deserve better, but never is it so.
Profile Image for Whitney Reinhart.
56 reviews8 followers
September 27, 2021
Beneath a Brass Sky by independent author, Eli Steele, is a fantasy adventure tale told from the third-person omniscient POV which follows Ulfric Halehorn and his band of sellswords as they embark on a dangerous mission across the Brasslands. From the beginning readers are dropped into an unfamiliar terrain with often confusing yet compelling power structures. Still, Halehorn, former Lord of Wyrmwatch from Prydia, has made his way to the lieutenancy of a sellsword company. He’s turned his back on his rightful place in the nobility for a life on the road, securing contracts, and working in the company of men whose demons are as familiar as his own. When his company, the Fives, secures a contract to deliver “something” valuable to the coastal city of Kush, his survival and drive for justice are put to the test.

Set upon by brigands in the Brasslands, a vast sprawling desert which divides the continent, Ulfric is knocked unconscious and awakens to find that only he and one other, Spero the Banker, have survived the attack. Halehorn is promoted to Captain by default and the two join forces with a mummer’s troupe for security in numbers. Determined to meet the terms of the contract and make the delivery to Kush, Halehorn’s contingent of misfits encounters a band of men led by The Huntsman, a charismatic, enigma who draws followers to him and leaves a destructive, killing trail in his wake across the Brasslands. Following a trail of crucified men, scalped corpses, and defiled children, it isn’t long before Halehorn and Spero realize The Huntsman is also headed for Kush. This realization redoubles their urgent push to the city and their desire to put an end to The Huntsman's murderous path.

With a mind-bending cast of characters (GoT fans will be thrilled), and a dizzying landscape which demands a map which is, sadly, not included, Steele delivers world building prose which borders on purple at times.

“A gust moaned in from the east, carrying with it thick smoke that reeked of scorched stone, and charred timber, and seared manflesh, and half a hundred other odors acrid and unknown. A bouquet of slaughter…His eyes burned.”

Occasionally, it is difficult to keep track of who’s speaking, why they're important, where they are, or where they’re going. But, it really doesn't matter. The blistering plot moves inexorably forward as quickly as Halehorn’s quest across the Brasslands; racing across endless dunes, winding through slot canyons, clambering over towering mountains, always on the lookout for dangers both real and imagined. Rife with misunderstood magics, creatures both familiar and strange, friendships forged and lost, Beneath a Brass Sky is worth the read and Ulfric Halehorn is a compelling, complicated hero. “And if rage was this sweet, it’s all I’d ever eat…”

Understand this before you venture into the Brasslands, “This is a hollow country – never forget that – all it does is swallow things up.”
Profile Image for Angela Boord.
Author 8 books89 followers
January 27, 2022
Beautiful writing and detailed worldbuilding with an exceptionally historically accurate feel to it. I didn’t feel like the plot really came together until the second half of the book, but the gorgeous descriptions and the stark, eerie desert landscape, the almost dreamlike journey that Halehorn makes throughout the book kept me reading. As the story spun out I also appreciated the moments of banter between the men, and I highlighted some really excellent lines.

It’s not a fast-paced book, but it will reward a reader who appreciates excellent prose and likes a detailed, realistic historically-inspired fantasy centered on a Norse (ish) mercenary very far from home.
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