Clay Cooper was once a member of the band Saga, one of the most famous bands of mercenaries in history. He toured the world with his friends, taking gigs to clear out monsters that threatened villages, or even venturing into the Heartwyld itself, the most dangerous place in the world. For ten years, they were giants, the top of the game.
Now, nineteen years later, Clay Cooper is retired with his wife and daughter, working as a town guard for his tiny village. Until one day Gabriel, Saga's old frontman, comes calling with yet another attempt to get the band back together—but this one is important. The distant city of Castia is under siege from the largest horde of monsters seen in hundreds of years, and Gabe's daughter Rose is trapped there, as she had been doing mercenary work in the area. Gabe wants Clay's help to get their old friends back together and save Rose.
There are some problems, though. Gabe sold his priceless sword, Moog, their wizard, is busy trying to find a cure for an incurable disease, Matrick the Thief is king of a country, and Ganelon, their finest, fiercest warrior, is locked in a magical prison. Just getting the band back together will be a miracle in and of itself. Then five old men will have to cross a thousand miles of the most dangerously enchanted woods in the world, to fight a horde of countless monsters, all to rescue a girl who is almost certainly already dead.
But if it were easy, there would be no glory.
This book provides examples of:
- Action Girl: Jain and her Silk Arrows, who casually get the drop on Saga twice. Gabe's daughter Rose, as well; there's a reason she was fighting at Castia. During the siege, she ended up in charge simply by virtue of being the most badass person still alive.
- Dark Action Girl: Larkspur.
- All Myths Are True: Characters make constant references to the story of the gods known as the Summer King and the Winter Queen, the first a benevolent deity of light and warmth, the second a malevolent deity of cold and death. There is also the Autumn Son, the Heathen, their son who turned on them both. It turns out that they're all druins. The Summer King was the Archon who gave Gabriel Vellichor, the Winter Queen his wife, and the Heathen their son, Lastleaf. When the Archon's wife died in childbirth, he created the sword Tamarat to resurrect her any time it was used to kill a druin, and immediately used it to kill their newborn daughter. His wife was resurrected, but horrified at what he had done, so killed herself. The Archon kept resurrecting her until she went insane. Their son stole Tamarat so that his mother could finally rest in peace.
- Affably Evil: Jain and her Silk Arrows, bandits who rob Gabe and Clay outside of Cloverdale, and then the rest of the band a few weeks later. The first time, they steal everything except for Clay's shield (Jain says that Blackheart is too important to take from him), and the second time they steal about twenty pounds of gold jewelry, but make the band breakfast first. With all the money, they decide to give up on thievery and become a mercenary band.
- Babies Ever After: Larkspur gives birth to Ganelon's son in the epilogue.
- Chainmail Bikini: The pretty female "mercenaries" Clay sees in Conthas are wearing armor that not only barely covers any skin, but is clearly too fragile to protect the skin it does cover. During the final battle, Clay spots them wearing much more practical armor.
- Declaration of Protection: Gabe gathers his old band, crosses thousands of miles, and engages a horde of monsters so big that they are the horizon, all to save his daughter.
- Elites Are More Glamorous: Unlike most settings, mercenaries are considered elite forces who earn glory and fame by protecting people from monsters. It's explained that part of the reason for this is because there hasn't been a large scale human-vs-human war in decades, so the normal army units don't have much to do besides parade and guard things. Mercenaries, on the other hand, are constantly testing themselves against monsters, so one mercenary is easily a match for a dozen normal soldiers.
- End of an Age: With the monster population down and the world safe, gone are the days where a few strong fighters could wander into a nearby forest, kill a bunch of monsters, and get a name for themselves. Now most of the fighting is done in arenas, and the pageantry of the mercenaries has been cranked up until the knob falls off. Gabe's Rousing Speech at the end points out that the world is obviously not saved, since there's a giant horde attacking Castia.
- Enemy Mine: When Saga and Larkspur become stranded in the Heartwyld. The members of Saga are wary that the "amnesiac" Larkspur will revert back to her real personality and Larkspur is putting on an act in order to get Saga's cooperation due to their circumstances.
- Faux Action Girl: Some of the new female "mercenaries" are pretty clearly just models and dancers hired to make the male mercenaries look good during the parade. They even respond to catcalls with blown kisses, when Clay notes that most female mercenaries respond to that sort of thing by beating the offending party within an inch of their life. Turns out that they actually are competent mercenaries; at the final battle, Clay sees them in sensible armor fighting beside their coworkers.
- Faux Affably Evil: Kallorek "the Orc," Saga's old bookie, acts like a friendly and eccentric landowner. But he reacts violently to any insult, real or imagined, casually breaks his word on both major and minor deals, and has a monopoly on all booking west of the Heartwyld that lets him take fully half of anything any mercenary bands make.
- Femme Fatale: Larkspur.
- Foreshadowing: Lastleaf's name is a big hint that he's the Autumn Son, the Heathen.
- HeelFace Turn: Double subverted with Larkspur. Her "amnesia" causes her to revert back to an innocent girl only to reveal she was pretending to be one in order to catch Saga off guard. However, she later has a real one and helps Saga during the final battle.
- Helmets Are Hardly Heroic: Clay really hates helmets, claiming that all they do is muffle your hearing, block your peripheral vision, and they don't even do a good job of protecting against blows to the head. It seems he's not alone in this belief: With the notable exception of Lastleaf (and then only for a little while during the final battle), no one else in the book wears one either.
- In Love with Your Carnage: Why Ganelon and Larkspur become a couple.
- Knife Nut: Matrick uses two dangerous, named knives. At first he appears to subvert the stereotype, but it turns out that when he gets going, he's a wickedly cruel fighter who can give Ganelon a run for his money.
- Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Clay spends a significant portion of the book with no weapon except his shield Blackheart. He carved it from the corpse of the treant Blackheart, who Saga killed for leading a group of treants in attacking a town.
- Memento MacGuffin: Gabe carries around a bunch of rocks that Rose found when she was a little girl. They're just boring ordinary rocks, and Clay says that Rose isn't going to care about them. Gabe says that they're not a gift, they're to put on Rose's grave if she's already dead. After he gets a chance to talk to her using magic, he puts them on Shadow's grave instead, since they're not worth hauling all the way to Castia.
- More Criminals Than Targets: After centuries of mercenaries making names for themselves by killing every kobold and harpy that gets within ten miles of a human settlement, there aren't really many monsters left outside the Heartwyld. The cities found a logical (albeit horrifying) solution to this problem: Breed the monsters themselves, and have mercenaries fight them in the arena. The old-timer mercenaries are all disturbed at the idea, and even the younger generation admit there's not much glory in that kind of fight.
- Named Weapons: Pretty common among higher-level mercenaries. Gabe has the sword Vellichor (the most valuable artifact in the world, a gift from a dying immortal), Clay has the shield Blackheart (carved from the corpse of the treant Blackheart), Matrick has the knives Grace and Roxy (named after the prostitutes he lost his virginity to), and Ganelon has the axe Syrinx (origin unknown, but its magic only comes alive in his hands). Lastleaf has three swords, all forged by his father: Tamarat (forged to bring his wife back from the dead), Scorn (a "volatile weapon"), and Madrigal (the singing sword, a gift from Lastleaf's father to an Exarch).
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Numerous to real-world rock stars, including "Neil the Young" and Elvais, the latter of whom was a legendary hero who died on a latrine. Word of God confirms that Clay Cooper's nickname, Slowhand, is a deliberate Shout Out to Eric Clapton.
- Portal Network: The ancient Dominion had a small one, with only three "Thresholds:" One in the ruins near Castia, one in Kaladar where the War Fair is held, and one in Antica, which sunk into the sea. They open the Castia portal to send the dragon Akatung to Antica, then take it to Kaladar and bring the entire War Fair to fight the Heartwyld Horde.
- Private Military Contractors: The mercenaries, of course, though they're treat far more sympathetically than is normal for this trope. Furthermore, the entire setting is based on a pun regarding the word "band:" Mercenary bands are treated exactly like rock bands, with tours, frontmen, bookers, gigs, and of course money and fame.
- Rousing Speech: Gabe gives one at the War Fair to convince every mercenary present—and therefore nearly all of the mercenaries in the world—to follow him through a portal to Castia to save the city and his daughter. And he gives this speech through a pinecone.
- Sealed Badass in a Can: Ganelon is an unintentional version; he was given the worst punishment anyone could think of, which had the side effect of leaving him young and healthy when the band needed him nineteen years later. After the siege of Castia, he voluntarily goes back, telling the guards "wake me when she gets here." Presumably he was referring to the Winter Queen.
- Sequel Hook: As Lastleaf was dying of his wounds, he used Tamarat to kill himself, resurrecting his mother the Winter Queen. She hasn't made herself known yet, but it's only a matter of time.
- Taken for Granite: "The Quarry" is a prison where the prisoners are turned to stone and locked away in the darkness, guarded by basilisks. While everyone assumes that they are unaware, according to Ganelon they are completely awake. He spent ten years in a frothing rage, hating his friends for abandoning him, but he mellowed out by the time they freed him.
- The Team: The main mercenaries, of course. The book has plenty of fun drawing parallels between a mercenary band and a rock band.
- The Leader/Face of the Band: Golden Gabe, "the frontman." Not only is he literally the man in front during a fight, but he is the one who does all the talking and has all the ideas, making him a clear example of a Charismatic Leader.
- The Lancer/The Leader: Clay initially appears to be Gabe's second, but Gabe laughs when Clay calls Gabe the leader. Sure, everyone outside Saga thought he was in charge, but everyone inside Saga (except for Clay) knew that they were following Clay. While Gabe usually had the ideas, Clay was the one who had the final decision.
- According to the author, Clay was envisioned as "the guy on bass whose name everyone forgets but without whom the song just doesnt feel right."
- The Lancer: Matrick, the friendly but violent knifeman, has the last name Skulldrummer and handles his two knives like drumsticks.
- The Smart Guy: Moog, the wizard/alchemist. He knows a little something about everything, and will ramble about it at length. His odd devices and ideas also bring to mind the oddity of the keyboardist.
- The Big Guy: Ganelon, quiet and taciturn but extremely dangerous. His weapon of choice being a two-handed axe, he is the band's obvious guitarist. His reputation for being a frothing Blood Knight who causes more trouble than he solves also brings to mind the infamous memetic insanity of drummers.
- Sixth Ranger: Larkspur, a Femme Fatale bounty hunter who initially hunts Saga to claim a bounty on Matrick, but who eventually allies herself with the band.
- Ungrateful Bastard: The princess that saga saved from being raped and imprisoned and then married Matrick constantly cuckolds him, none of his kids are his. Refuses to let him leave as king to make a legitimate heir. And has tried to have him assassinated on multiple occasions.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Larkspur pulls this on Saga by pretending to have amnesia when they get stranded in the Heartwyld.
- Yoko Oh No: In-Universe. Valery, Gabe's wife, is often credited with breaking apart Saga by poisoning Gabe's ear and talking about coexisting with monsters. Clay notes that while Valery didn't really help, in the end she didn't have much to do with the band's troubles, and especially not with them breaking up.