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.