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.

 

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.