In a cathedral at the south of the Istryan Empire, young men and women are trained to be killers. The Order of the Golden Sword’s inquisitors are feared for their brutality masked as piety. Masters of blade and crossbow, their quarry is the god-cursed werewolf, whom they hunt with impunity to herald the return of their god.
Betrayed by her monstrous father, Selene loses her left arm and nearly her life when she’s saved by a traveling inquisitor. Scarred and broken, she swears vengeance on the cursed beasts and joins the Order. It takes all her will to overcome her limits, only for her violent past to drag her back into blood.
With the fabric of the empire at stake, Selene must master her hatred, hone it to a sharp point, then let it loose on her enemies.
The Sword of Mercy and Wrath by NC Koussis is a grimdark novel that wonderfully explores the themes of identity and trauma. With the added bonuses of werewolves and a one-armed, baddass female protagonist.
Early in the novel, our main POV character Selene is attacked by her adoptive father, who turns out to be a werewolf, shortly after she sees him kill her adoptive mother. During the attack she loses her left arm at the shoulder but she is rescued by members of a group know as The Order of the Golden Sword, who hunt down werewolves in the name of their god, and she quickly joins their order. Just as quickly, she starts to change into a completely different person, justifying the horrifying actions of the order, then her own. This transformation is solidified when she becomes a full member of the order and changes her name to Diana, effectively becoming a whole new person. But only after passing her trial, where she coldly sacrifices a teammate and uses her as bait.
Selene quickly becomes a person whose actions are reprehensible and it is easy to dismiss her, but Koussis does an excellent job in exploring the effects of trauma with the character of Selene. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that does such a good job of deconstructing an organization such as The Order of the Golden Sword, that preys on the weak and traumatized, and molds them into something they can use. The Order is effectively a cult, and while fantasy as seen many a cult, Koussis shows it from a different perspective that I have never seen before. Selene is broken by the murder of a mother she loved and the loss of her arm, and we see how the Order takes advantage of her and turns her into a callous killer, using religion as a justification. Its a fascinating deconstruction of cults, and tactics we have seen used in the real world.
I also have to praise Koussis for his excellent representation of disability in this novel. Selene loses her entire left arm early in the book, and after some initial adjustment and difficulties associated with that, its mostly not mentioned again. Which is a good thing. Selene doesn’t constantly pine for her lost arm or view it as something to overcome or compensate for. She is just herself, with one less arm. And she is no less competent for it. She quickly rises through the ranks of the Order and is a prolific fighter and werewolf slayer. You often forget that she has only one arm, and when you do remember, it only makes you admire her skills all the more for it. Fantasy is full of characters with a disability that use magic or some fancy technology to compensate, but Koussis shows that Selene doesn’t need any of that, and is no less of a person for the loss of a limb.
My only major critique is I would have liked to see more of Selene’s personality develop, both as she is becoming a darker person after joining the Order, as well as at the end of the novel. From our point of view she just sort of changes, and the reasons make sense, but I would have liked to take a closer look at the process. I didn’t feel any emotional connection with Selene as she starts her downward spiral so at times her actions were confusing, and didn’t make sense in the moment. It was only looking back that I understood what was happening. So while I thoroughly enjoyed Selene’s story, it would have been more impactful for me if I had felt a deeper connection with her as she was sucked deeper and deeper into the cult. I also didn’t connect much with Tristain, so that even though he was the second POV, he mostly felt like a minor character to me, though I did enjoy his storyline as well, and how it tied into the theme of identity.
The prose of this novel is very approachable, not too complex but not simplistic either. As one would expect from a grimdark novel it is dark and bloody. Koussis does not shy away from depicting action scenes as they would be. I really enjoyed the action scenes involving the werewolves, and how a human would fight one. There are some interesting details in how one can kill a werewolf in this world and who doesn’t like seeing a huge werewolf in combat? I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone who like darker fantasy novels. I’m excited by the cliffhangers we got at the end of the book and I am eagerly anticipating the next entry in the series!