Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 56 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Trouble wore a red dress.

That’s the first sentence of Broken Blade by my friend Kelly McCullough.

When I jotted that first line down for this podcast, I thought to myself “That sounds more like the start of a noir detective story than a fantasy novel with mages, assassins, and gods, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Broken Blade shares an awful lot of DNA with a classic private-eye mystery. Aral is a down-on-his-luck “shadow jack” who escaped into the bottle after the death of the goddess he served.  Falling from professional goddess-blessed assassin to a poor, unsavoury almost-all-purpose freelancer isn’t a million miles away from the stereotypical ex-cop who becomes a seedy private eye.

And this story has several mysteries. Who is this mysterious woman in red? What does she really want? How does that tie into the future of the city? And what does Aral’s old friend (who’s supposed to be dead) have to do with it all?

A nice departure from the detective stereotypes is that the femme fatale isn’t the type who needs constant rescuing — she mostly needs help from someone who has a slightly different set of skills. Maylien’s relationship with Aral is one of equals — or rather, each is superior to the other in important ways, and this balances nicely. They rescue each other, they each struggle with their own personal demons, and they both have adorable familiars — hers is a tiny gryphon.

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Triss. Triss is Aral’s shadow — literally. He’s a creature from the “everdark,” and he is bonded to Aral as his familiar. I adore Triss. The relationship between Aral and Triss is the heart of the book for me. They love each other, but Triss is saddened and ashamed at what Aral, who was once known as Kingslayer, has become. Triss is part best friend, part grumpy-judgey uncle, part conscience, and part dragon. Yep — that’s right, he’s a miniature dragon. Well, dragon shadow. But he can manifest enough to get scritches on his scales from time to time.

Another thing I enjoy about this book is how it feels like it’s taking place before the backdrop of a well-developed universe, but it’s not shoved in our faces. It’s very clear that the author and the characters know a ton about the world, but we don’t stop the action for an explanation of anything unless it’s important to the plot at hand. This book feels lived-in in the best way, so every time we learn something new it feels like it’s unspooling naturally.

Also, apropos of nothing, it’s clear this book was written by someone who really gets librarians.

This was my second time reading Broken Blade. Kelly is working on a new Blade novel, and before I dive into the new chapters he’s posting on his Patreon, I wanted to re-read all the previous books in the series. I went in with a teeny bit of trepidation because I loved it the first time through, and you never know if the suck fairy will have visited in the intervening years. I was mightily relieved to discover I enjoyed this book even more the second time through. Having read the rest of the books in this series (which I think gets better and better with each book), it was really fun to re-visit Aral’s origin. I noticed things I’d slid over my first time through that pay off later. That’s always fun.

So if you need a distraction right now as much as I do, you could do much worse than diving into the world of Broken Blade. You could stop reading after this book — it has a satisfying ending, but if you do want to go on (and you probably will), there’s lots more great stuff ahead.

 

Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 55 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

I killed my first man today…

That’s the first sentence of Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

If I had read a description of Guns of the Dawn, I probably wouldn’t have read the book. So I’m pretty glad I never bothered to do that. It came highly recommended by some friends, so I bought it and dug in without seeing anything more than the cover.

This is a book about war. Not my favourite topic. It also has a very regency novel vibe to it — another thing that doesn’t tend to strike my fancy. If those things are up your alley, I urge you to run, do not walk, and nab this book because you’ll probably like it even more than I did.

It follows Emily Marshwic during and before she is drafted and sent to the awful, swampy front lines of a war between her country, Lascanne, and its neighbour, Denland. Lascanne has run out of men to send, and while it is quite unthinkable, the king has begun drafting women to be soldiers.

As I mentioned, this novel, while in a fantasy country where the king can anoint warlocks to shoot fire from their hands in service of their nation, feels very much like a regency novel. The trappings of society are of great importance to Emily and her sisters. They live in a large house on an estate. The Marshwic name is noble and well-respected, for all that the family has fallen in stature after the suicide of Emily’s father — a fate he was driven to by the deplorable Mr. Northway, who became the mayor-governor when it should have been Emily’s father. Skirmishes of words with Mr. Northway are the only battles Emily is familiar with before she “takes the red” and becomes an ensign in the King’s army.

The book chronicles her life both at home and on the front lines, by starting each chapter with Emily’s letters from the front. The rest of most chapters take us through her life, starting well before the draft, covering her training, and then we watch her grapple with what it means to be a soldier, a woman soldier, and a woman.

While this book’s topics may not be my usual fare, I’m very glad I read it. This is most definitely a book about war, but it in no way glorifies war. It examines war through a variety of lenses and comes to very reasonable and realistic conclusions about it. The characters are well-drawn and likeable. And most importantly, Emily’s inner life and struggles are compelling and relatable.

If any of these elements sounds like your thing, I will again exhort you check it out because I expect you’ll be glad you did.