Blade Reforged by Kelly McCullough

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 63 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

The present is the past. Every today is built atop the mounded corpses of a thousand yesterdays. Mine was no exception.

That’s the beginning of Blade Reforged by Kelly McCullough. I’m Erika Ensign, and this is Recently Read.

If you listened to episode 56 of Recently Read, you heard me talk about how I was embarking on a re-read of my friend Kelly McCullough’s Fallen Blade series. I had intended to record episodes about each book in the series, but as you may have found yourselves, 2020 and 2021 have been rough years for productivity. So while I did reread and enjoy Bared Blade and Crossed Blades, the second and third books in the series, I didn’t have the wherewithal to podcast about them.

Cut to now, having just finished the fourth entry in the series, Blade Reforged, and I just couldn’t let this one go by without talking about it. As I said, I do like the first three books, but I feel like this novel takes a significant leap in terms of the depths of storytelling, the depth of character, and the depth of my love of this world Kelly has built.

In fact, if you find the idea of a six-book series (with another on the way) to be too much of a commitment, I encourage you to jump into the series here at Blade Reforged. There are some references to what came before, but they’re always brief and explain exactly what you need to know without digressing.

At this point in the series, Aral, the assassin once known as the Kingslayer, has crawled out of the gutter and the bottle and hits a point in putting his life back together that, to me, is more interesting than the earlier stages of that process. The first three books dealt with Aral pulling himself together (amidst international politicking, battles with the undead, and dealings with strange and fantastical creatures and people). This book deals with the concept of *keeping* himself together.

And he really needs to because in order to save a friend, he has to topple a regime, find a way to kill another king, and place his sometimes-lover on the throne. All while dodging one of his childhood best friends who has turned traitor, a terrifying historical figure he thought was long-dead, and his own addictions.

It’s also worth pointing out that other than Aral and his childhood best friend, almost all the important characters — the movers and shakers of the book — are women. And it’s refreshing that this is a world where that’s just a no-big-deal thing. This isn’t one of those high-fantasy settings where women are generally subservient and the few who overcome that are special in some way. Women hold positions of power within the city and as the heads of state both in neighbouring countries and throughout the hierarchy of the nation where the action takes place. Women also make up plenty of the random side characters. If Aral is being chased by a squad of the city guard, he’s just as likely to have to slip past a woman as he is a man.

Also worth noting, Aral is bisexual, and that’s no big deal. Another character is asexual, which is also no big thing. And because the city of Tien is a hub of commerce with residents from far and wide, there are people with a variety of skin colours. In fact, people with skin as pale as mine (I am quite pale) seem to be in the minority.

Sometimes I do want a book that deals with race and gender and sexuality and reflects the real-world issues that go along with them. But other times, I really want a fantasy world where everyone can just be themselves, and the strife and drama come from people being giant a-holes or evil or possibly even the risen dead.

So if that kind of thing sounds tempting to you, join me in diving into the Fallen Blade series. Whether you start at the beginning with Broken Blade or jump in here at Blade Reforged, I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

I’m Erika Ensign, and this has been Recently Read.

 

The Nightshades Series by Melissa F. Olson

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 62 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Heavenly, Illinois, 30 miles outside Chicago
Wednesday night

Out of the corner of his eye, Special Agent Gabriel Ruiz watched his new partner with serious trepidation.

That’s the beginning of Nightshades by Melissa F. Olson. I’m Erika Ensign, and this is Recently Read.

This episode of Recently Read is a little different because I’m covering all three books in this slick, quick series of paranormal thrillers.

The first book in the series is Nightshades — a delightful and delicious snack of a book that was exactly what I needed. I really love a good take on what would happen if vampires were suddenly confirmed to be real, and this is that. It’s a minor splash followed by a return to typical ennui in the general population. As we now know, millions of people can basically ignore a deadly pandemic, so I think Melissa is vindicated in her prediction that folks can ignore vampires in our midst until they affect one’s community directly.

So yes, the FBI does institute a new unit specifically for tracking “shades”, as vampires are called, but it’s not a terribly well-funded unit. Which makes it a bit odd that one of the “golden boys” of the bureau volunteers to lead the Chicago division. What’s even odder is the consultant he convinces to work with him.

Oh yes, this series is an excellent example of the cop/not-a-cop genre. In this case, the not-a-cop just happens to be a vampire. And she’s only helping grudgingly for mysterious reasons of her own.

I bought the sequel mere moments after finishing this book!

That sequel is called Switchback. I gulped that book down in a single day, and I have zero regrets. I liked it even better than the first volume in the series. As a good second book does, Switchback builds out the characters and relationships, taking them to places that naturally follow from the first book. I liked all the characters when I met them in Nightshades, but after Switchback, I was INVESTED.

The final book in the trilogy is Outbreak. After inhaling the first two books in the series, I was happy-sad to see it come to a conclusion. Without spoiling specifics, I’ll say it’s a satisfying conclusion, but I’d still love more from these characters. It definitely rounds out the series and continues and/or completes the arcs of many of the characters, and that’s exactly what I look for in the final book of a series.

If you’re in the market for some quick, fun, occasionally mildly gory mystery-thrillers about a world with vampires — both as baddies and super-cool kickass ancient ladies who are very very much too old for this shit and would rather just work a desk job than try to ferret out the secrets of an international vampire cabal that’s up to no good, I encourage you to check out Nightshades. If you’re like me, you’ll hop right to the next two almost as quickly as a shade can zip across a room to rip someone’s throat out.

I’m Erika Ensign, and this has been Recently Read.

 

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 61 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

They’re coming.

It’s early morning, the end of the Bi-Hour of the Cat–and Thanh has been awake for most of it, staring at the wall and trying to cobble together thoughts in the emptiness of her mind.

If she closes her eyes, she’ll see Yosolis again, smell the snow and ashes on the night the palace burned–when everyone was too busy evacuating the real princesses to give much thought to the dark-skinned one in the attic room, the “guest” from the South who had been little more than a glorified hostage.

That’s the beginning of Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard. I’m Erika Ensign, and this is Recently Read.

Everything Aliette writes is beautiful, and this novella is no exception. Princess Thanh has been back at home in her home country of Bìhn Hi for two years after 10 as a political hostage in the court of the distant, more powerful nation of Ephteria. Her strict, harsh mother, the Empress, has agreed to allow Than to take point on negotiations with the nation where she spent so many years — and almost died in a huge fire that destroyed the Ephterian castle.

The last thing Than expected was for her erstwhile lover, Princess Eldris, to be part of the Ephterian delegation. And Eldris makes no bones about being there for her. If her complicated romantic feelings aren’t complicated enough, then why not throw in a fire elemental that’s been occasionally burning small items around the palace. Oh, and mix in some light blackmail for extra seasoning.

If any of those elements sounds like your thing, I definitely recommend checking out Fireheart Tiger. It was a very quick read, and honestly, if I have one complaint about it, it’s that it’s too short. I wanted more interactions between these characters. Especially between Than and Giang. If they have more adventures together, I’ll be hitting that pre-order button with alacrity!

I’m Erika Ensign, and this has been Recently Read.

 

Tea and Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 60 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

If anyone had told Miss Mneme Seabourne that she should grow up to be the sort of person who was bored of garden parties, she would have declared then and there that growing up was off the table.

That’s the first sentence of Tea and Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts. I’m Erika Ensign, and this is Recently Read.

After a rough week (let’s face it, a rough year) and after reading some dark and tragic books, I decided to treat myself to one of my friend Tansy’s novellas. Tea and Sympathetic Magic did not disappoint. It was an hour of my time well spent that cheered me greatly at a time I really needed it.

And if you happen to be listening to this podcast before June 20, 2021, check out the show notes for a link to where you can get this story for free from bookfunnel. (No, that’s not how I got it — I’m a subscriber to Tansy’s Patreon, so I got it via my patronage there, and I just happened to read it right before it became available for free. Lucky for you! Unless you’re listening in the future, in which case, I hope it’s nice there.)

Anyway, regency-plus-magic isn’t a genre I’ve really dived into before, and I guess I still haven’t because this isn’t technically a Regency setting. I’m pretty sure “The Teacup Isles” don’t exist, nor does the kind of magic that will allow you to enchant a whole wedding full of guests using spells cast on desserts, but this setting feels very Regency.

Miss Seabourne is forced to attend yet another garden party where her marriage-pushy mother hopes she’ll snag the eye of the Duke, but she wants nothing more than to retire to the library with a cup of tea and a good book.

The fellow who does catch her eye is the Duke’s “spellcracker” — the person hired to find and dispel any love charms or potions the marriageable ladies may have brought to the gathering. It’s very important, after all, for the Duke to choose his own wife.

If that little bit of information doesn’t hook you, then this story won’t be your bag. If it’s intriguing, I highly suggest you brew your own cup of tea and settle in with this delightful book. By the end, you may want to skip the accompanying pastries though.

I’m Erika Ensign, and this has been Recently Read.

 

Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 59 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

In the middle of the greenwood stood an oak, broad as it was tall, with roots the Fae believed wrapped around the heart of the world. People on the farms outside Sherwood still told tales abut that tree; most called it Robin’s Oak. Few spinning takes about Robin and Marian’s adventures knew I shared a cottage there with my children. Much as it pained Robin to claim Kate and Robbie, they were his children too. Only a few close friends and the monks in St Mary’s knew he’d left us on our own almost twelve years ago.

That’s the first paragraph of Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer. I’m Erika Ensign, and this is Recently Read.

Having loved Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia Martin series, which starts with Delia’s Shadow, I was excited to pick up this new novel, even though it’s not remotely related to the events in that series.

This book is a poignant take on the aftermath of the Robin Hood myth, told from Marian’s point of view. It’s roughly 18 years since the events popularized in story and song, and, as you may have gathered from the first paragraph, it’s been 12 years since Robin left Marian and their two unborn children, had the marriage annulled, and retired to Friar Tuck’s abbey.

Yeah. Bit of a twist right off the bat there.

Also, Marian is a witch. She knows magic, can contact the Fae, and even has a Great Dragon for a friend. I love every one of these elements.

The action in the book gets started when Abbot Tuck comes to visit to ask for Marian’s help. Several of their friends of old have died in mysterious circumstances — including, most recently, Will Scarlet, who is Marian’s lover and has raised her children with her for more than a decade.

She’s heartbroken at losing her love and partner, and equally appalled when she learns that Little John’s 11-year old son Ethan is one of the poor souls to die from what Tuck believes must be a curse. And because it’s a curse, Marian is the only one who can figure out who cast it and how to stop them. He begs her to journey to the scenes of the crimes and pull the threads to solve the mystery and — more importantly — stop the killings.

So Marian sets out to try to save the day. Unfortunately, Tuck has set Robin of Sherwood himself the task of protecting her on the journey. Neither of them are pleased about the situation, though they do gain a few colourful, and truly fantastic, companions along the way.

That’s the setup, and I won’t say much more about the plot, but I will leave you with a word of caution. If you’re looking for a swashbuckling Robin Hood story with a lot of lighthearted fun and banter, this is definitely not that. Brightfall is a fairly dark story about wrestling with grief, making tough choices, doing what must be done because nobody else can do it, and coming to terms with loss and change.

And it deals with these things very well. So if you’re in a place for a serious examination of life and loss through the lens of a strong but tired middle-aged woman of power, this is absolutely the story for you.

And, like I said, it’s got faeries and dragons, which for me is always a win.

I’m Erika Ensign, and this has been Recently Read.