Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff SalyardsI’ve always been fascinated by embedded journalists. Chronicling a military campaign right in the middle of the action rather than second- or third-hand, at a safe remove. It’s hard to get more visceral than that—dust in the face, grit in the teeth, adrenaline thumping, shadows jumping, blood splattering immediacy, all while trying to just stay alive long enough to somehow give what happened some kind of coherency. Whether book or article, writing is often a solitary, quiet affair, but writing front and center on a military endeavor changes the whole ball game.

Being a self-professed geek (at least 12th level), I naturally take observations like this and start plugging them into a fantasy scenario. How would this play out with a quill and ink on a different world, and how could I complicate it to make such a chronicler’s life even more hellish than anything your modern embedded journalist might endure? I’m a cruel bastard like that.

Now, that phrase “embedded journalist” is a recent invention, but the notion isn’t—Jean de Joinville was a crusader groupie 700 years ago. And Glen Cook cooked up a ripping yarn about a chronicler in a mercenary company—you might have heard of it—so the idea isn’t unique to fantasy either. I had to figure out how to differentiate my take, so I resorted to that most ancient and venerable of writerly tactics, the “what if” game…

What if the archivist’s new patron provides only enough information to entice him along—promising adventure, hinting at fame—without supplying any of the really essential details. You know, like the fact they are going to be involved in a covert operation with decidedly bad odds of survival. And what if said patron belongs to a military order known for its treachery, renowned for black atrocities? What would convince a chronicler to take on job like that, murky and ill-defined, with unsavory company?

I considered having my archivist/narrator on the run from something, but I opted for more mercenary and foolish reasons. What if this gig sounds appealing because he’s ridiculously bored? Maybe recording the vastly uninteresting tales of merchants and minor nobles is just mind numbing enough to make the risk sound worthwhile. He’s being offered the chance to hitch his wagon to history being made—what’s a little danger along the way against that? (A big deal, as it turns out. A real big deal.)

And what if he’s just experienced enough to attract the attention of the patron, but young enough to be imbued with the extraordinarily dumb conviction that bad things always happen to everyone else?

OK, so he signs on, against his better judgment and misgivings. What else could I do to make things as painful as possible for the young scribe? Well, maybe his new patron claims to possess a cursed weapon that captures the memories of men he’s killed, bombarding him with them. And a steppe nomad traveling in the retinue has to drain those foreign memories out like poison. Is the patron mad? Who knows? Certainly not the chronicler, who’s really starting to think signing on to this gig was a colossal mistake. And all this before discovering that the military company is trying to engineer a civil war in a neighboring kingdom, and the last two chroniclers hired to accompany them might have met an untimely (as in, bashed to pieces with a flail) end.

So he’s forced to stay on, recording what he witnesses, trying to make sense of it all, and mostly struggling to avoid getting slashed, stabbed, crushed, shot, or smashed to death.

Unfriendly fire in front, unfriendly threats from behind, and not a whole lot of friendly in the middle.

This was the basic impetus for writing Scourge of the Betrayer. Then I had to figure out how to flesh this puppy out. While the canvas will expand as the series progresses, I really wanted the first book to be more intimate than epic in scope. No dark lords, no grand prophecies, no vast armies, and just enough of the supernatural or fantastic to be intriguing. A small cast of noirish characters, shady politics, and the intricacies and dangers of the operation revealed in a slow burn. The term “gritty” gets bandied around a lot as a marketing device, and it’s beginning to lose some of its potency (well, whatever potency it might have ever had). That said, if you’re going to go gritty, military fantasy is the place for it. Not exactly full of bunnies and rainbows.

Like most fantasy writers, I love worldbuilding. Coming up with elaborate magic systems, eons of history, deep cultures. But doing those things can be seductive—at least for me. It’s fun to spend months (or years) creating a richly detailed world, but you can get lost doing it, and if you forget to populate it with interesting, compelling characters and story, nobody will give a damn. So I knew with Scourge, and what I was trying to do, I would need to really rein myself in, to make the thing as character-driven as possible.

But being my own worst enemy, I still found a way to muck it up. Once I had the basic characters in place, I still allowed things to sprawl and bloat—I decided to have the chronicler not only record what was happening in “real time”, but also big chunks of back story narrated by the patron. Which took up tons of space on the page, slowed the pace down to a crawl in spots, ran counter to the patron’s generally reticent/secretive behavior, and proved to be one heck of a narrative mess to clean up when I decided to scrap the back story sections and strip them out, as those seriously impacted the structure of the more immediate sections.

But I like doing things the hard way. That’s how I roll.

Written by Jeff Salyards

Jeff Salyards

Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn't Mayberry, it was quiet and sleepy, so he got started early imagining his way into other worlds that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While he ultimately moved away, he never lost his fascination for the fantastic. Though his tastes have grown a bit darker and more mature over the years. Jeff lives near Chicago with his wife and three daughters. By day, he is a book editor for the American Bar Association; by night, he will continue to crank out novels as long as there are readers willing to read them.

  • Ross April 16, 2012 at 5:46 am

    This really just made me curious to read his book… Gonna keep my eyes peeled for this one;) I’m in the military so this one sounds especially intriguing! Thanks for the heads up!

  • sqt April 16, 2012 at 7:08 am

    I worked for a TV show back in the mid-90’s and the craziest stories I ever heard were from the cameramen. I learned early on that they are a breed apart- and a little nuts. They will often go anywhere to get a good shot. I spoke to a guy who spent some time in Bosnia during the war and his stories were heartbreaking, but he went back more than once. Another guy I knew worked on the TV show COPS and went in with the gang units in some of the worst parts of L.A.; he said that scared him more than anything else he’s ever done.

    It was this precise element that drew me to your book in the first place. I was always intrigued by the stories my co-workers told me, and combining that with a fantasy setting is really appealing.

  • Jeff Salyards April 16, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Hi, Ross. I’m glad you’re intrigued! The book will be out in a couple of weeks.


  • Jeff Salyards April 16, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Yeah, those folks are a different breed. ;-) My “journalist” is a little more reserved, and doesn’t realize what he’s gotten himself into until it’s much too late to get out–so he doesn’t have the same crazy gene as your co-workers!–but I always wanted to explore that scenario in a fantasy setting, too.

  • Jeff Salyards April 16, 2012 at 8:13 am

    By the way–thanks for the support!

  • Paul (@princejvstin) April 16, 2012 at 8:15 am

    when I first came across the description of your book, the thought “embedded journalist” came immediately to mind. Also, Glen Cook and the Black Company novels.

  • Jeff Salyards April 16, 2012 at 8:24 am


    I read the first Black Company novels ages ago, and loved them. When I came up with the idea for my series, I made it a point not to read any of Cook’s recent stuff, or reread the older books. I’m honored anyone would mention my stuff in the same breath, but I wanted to try to give my take as fresh a spin as possible.

  • Paul (@princejvstin) April 16, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Well, unread, I don’t know how similar they are, but when I think of chronicled mercenaries, how can I not think of him? :) Also, some parts of the Steven Erikson Malazan novels, too.

    We’ll see how your take does in due course. Looking forward to it.

  • Jeff Salyards April 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Yeah, I think the comparison is inevitable. I look forward to hearing your thoughts once you’ve been Scourged. Or Betrayed. ;-)

  • […] A Dribble of Ink (Jeff Salyards) on Embedded With the Enemy? […]

  • […] Being a self-professed geek (at least 12th level), I naturally take observations like this and start plugging them into a fantasy scenario. How would this play out with a quill and ink on a different world, and how could I complicate it to make such a chronicler’s life even more hellish than anything your modern embedded journalist might endure? I’m a cruel bastard like that.” Read the full post at A Dribble of Ink. […]

  • Stefan (Far Beyond Reality) April 17, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I’m really intrigued by this novel, and some day soon, I will manage to get a review copy of it! :)

  • Jeff Salyards April 18, 2012 at 4:07 am


    I’ll follow up with Night Shade and check on the status. :-)

  • Paul (@princejvstin) April 18, 2012 at 4:24 am

    Yeah, I wonder if SF Signal or the Functional Nerds will get a review copy…

  • Jeff Salyards April 18, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Let me me see what I can do there too. . .

  • […] over at A Dribble of Ink had a fun guest post by Jeff Salyards about his forthcoming debut novel Scourge of the Betrayer, a book I just started reading and plan […]

  • […] A Dribble of Ink: Embedded With the Enemy? […]

  • […] A Dribble of Ink: Embedded With the Enemy? […]