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.

 

Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough - Spirits, Spells, and Snark - two young boys crouch with a firey hare and a wolf as they're menaced by crossbows. Behind them, a city skyline appears between two great gouts of fire that look almost like wings

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 34 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

“Are you sure this thing is magical?” Dave slowly turned the Crown of the North under the bright basement lights. The seven diamonds adorning the simple silver circlet barely flickered. “It doesn’t look it.”

That’s the first paragraph of Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough. Last week I wrote about Magic, Madness, and Mischief, and how much I loved that book. I feel like I can keep this post short because Spirits, Spells, and Snark, the sequel, does everything the first book did, but continues to deepen and develop the characters and relationships, while widening the breadth of what we learn about magic and how it works.

We even get a few new characters with solid page time. The three that stood out to me were all women or girls—well, mostly—one of them is also *something else*, but I won’t spoil that. (It was a little thing I loved that provided some nice perspective on what it’s like to be a high school girl.)

Before I go on, I’d like to share something the author tweeted a while back.

I heartily endorse this sentiment. My struggle as a child was more with my own mental health than with that of my parents, but I still think these books would’ve provided me with comfort, support, and an acknowledgement of craptastic brain chemistry that I didn’t come to until much later in life.

As I said last week, these books take mental illness seriously and they treat it in a way that manages to be sensitive with a healthy dollop of pathos—while also treating it as something that can be dealt with and lived with and managed if you are careful and thoughtful and get the right help. Crucially, mental illness is not something you can just “magic away”. I felt like Spirits, Spells, and Snark tackled this even more directly than the first book did (due, in part, to the way the plot progresses from the first and into the second book), and this was all to the good.

I have so many more things that I love about this book—how best-friend-Dave deals with the world of magic, how Sparks the fire-hare-familiar deals with being bound to a tween boy, and how that tween boy, Kalvan, learns to navigate both the world of magic and the “real one”. But suffice it to say, if you read the first book and liked it, you’ll definitely want to continue with Spirits, Spells, and Snark.

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough - a brunette, light-skinned boy holds a hare that's on fire and runs away from a cityscape between a wave of water with a castle and a woman in it and a great gout of flame

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 30 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Fire ran through all my dreams and I ran after it, the blackened ground crackling beneath my feet.

That’s the first sentence of Magic, Madness, and Mischief, by Kelly McCullough. Before I get into the book, let’s do the obligatory full disclosure: I had the pleasure of meeting Kelly a few years ago at a convention, and he is a truly lovely person with adorable cats and a great twitter feed, and I very much look forward to the next time I see him. However, I suspect all of that has very little to do with how much I enjoyed this middle-grade fantasy.

Wait! Before you tune out at the phrase “middle-grade”, let me assure you this is the kind of middle-grade book that is also appealing to many fantasy-loving adults like myself. I’ve certainly read some middle-grade fiction where the writing was so simplified and the plot was so dumbed-down that I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. This is not that.

On the contrary, I zipped through this book—twice, in fact—without wanting to put it down. The prose is simple enough to be accessible to a young audience, but it’s also snappy enough to hold the interest of an adult like me. And, importantly, the story is easy to follow while still being engrossing and tackling some heavy topics.

The term “madness” is placed in the title very deliberately. The main character, 13-year-old Kalvan Munroe, has to deal with the discovery that he’s a “child of fire” and has budding magical powers. But he also has to deal with a mother who suffers from severe mental illness. This topic is one that is close to my heart, and I feel it is handled sensitively and realistically.

This book does *not* do the thing I hate and chalk mental health issues up to magical interference or some nonsense like that. Mental illness is real, it’s serious, and magic can’t just cure it. And on top of dealing with all that, Kalvan still has to do the usual kid things like show up for school, do homework, take tests, hang out with his best friend Dave, and deal with a stepfather who is taciturn at the best of times and scary at the worst. None of that is easy when you’re trying to learn to control magic flame powers and are never more than 30 feet from a sarcastic, magical fire-hare.

Oh yes, I must mention Sparx, who is now one of my favourite sidekick-companion-familiar-type characters of all time. He is stuck with Kalvan, and Kalvan is stuck with him, and that leads to exactly the kind of delightful antics and banter I hoped for when Kalvan accidentally conjured Sparx. Their relationship deepens throughout the book, and it just gets better and better.

One thing that sets Magic, Madness, and Mischief apart from some of the other middle-grade and young-adult fiction I’ve read is its very distinctive sense of place. It is set in and around a slightly fictionalized version of St. Paul, Minnesota. As a transplanted Midwesterner, I’m always a bit of a sucker for books set in the flyover states, so I’ll admit my bias there. But I haven’t visited the Twin Cities often enough to really know the geography, so it’s not like I was wooed by recognizing a bunch of landmarks—other than the Mississippi River. (I’m familiar with *its* work—or, “her” work, as the case may be.)

McCullough conjures a very grounded setting with enough description to make me feel like I understand what’s happening where, but not so much that I get bored with lengthy explanations. While I’m definitely a fan of fantasy novels set in fantasy realms, there’s a special frisson that comes with magic when it’s overlayed upon a familiar, earthbound environment. And here it’s not a spooky countryside or an intimidating metropolis; it’s a Midwestern city that most people would find pretty ordinary. (Don’t get me wrong, I like St. Paul, but it’s not like it has much of a thrilling reputation far and wide.)

If you’re a regular listener to Recently Read or the book-club episodes of The Incomparable, you may know that I’m a bit of a connoisseur of fictional magic systems. Magic, Madness, and Mischief doesn’t really build out the magic system enough to totally engage that part of my nerd-brain, but I get the feeling this is on purpose. Kalvan is just barely scratching the surface of this new-to-him world of magic, so we as readers are also not fully versed by the end of the book. It’s clear that magic is elemental—fire, earth, water, air—but we don’t get a lot of detail about how each works or how they interact. That said, there are plenty of hints that McCullough knows exactly how this all fits together and that we’ll eventually learn more just as Kalvan does.

And that brings me to the last bit of full disclosure: the reason I’ve read this book twice is because the sequel is already out, and I wanted to dive back into this magical version of St. Paul to re-live the magic of this book before starting the next. I’ve already burned my way through Spirits, Spells, and Snark (pun intended), and loved every moment of it. Consider that a teaser for next week’s post.

Cool People Doing Cool Things – Issue V

Today’s quick roundup of my cool friends and their cool creations is writer-focused, which I find very exciting. Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, so I’m always grateful when one of my pals creates something new for me to read. Come to think of it, there’ve been rather a lot of writing-based creations in these posts. Check out the first, second, third, and fourth installments and see for yourself!


Cool Person: Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, herder and blogger of cats, and connoisseur of scotches. You may have read his Webmage and Fallen Blade books. Or you may have shared some delicious scotch with him at a convention. I highly recommend both activities. You know how you sometimes meet someone for the first time and go “Yup. This is a person I connect with. Thank you Universe/Fate/Random Chance for placing my path across his.” That’s how I felt after meeting Kelly.

Let me tell you, I was mightily relieved when I discovered he can write so well. Which brings me to…

Cool Thing: School for Sidekicks

metal porthole; Shutterstock ID 82146736

School for Sidekicks came out yesterday. I’m already three-quarters done with it. I’d be further along if I hadn’t fallen asleep reading it.

But WAIT! Let me explain how that’s a compliment. Continue reading