Thursday, February 2, 2012

Broken Blade

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3.5 stars 
Length: Moderate (288 pages) 
Publication: November 29, 2011 from Ace Books
Premise: Aral, one of the last of an order of assassins for Namara, the goddess of divine justice, is living in the bottom of a bottle with a price on his head when he gets offered a seemingly simple delivery job. He runs into a former friend and a new enemy, both of whom should have him running from the city where he earned the name of Kingslayer. Instead, with the help of his familiar and a client in need of justice, he tries to right a wrong in the way he used to; things get complicated very quickly. Along the way, he starts to edge back to the remnants of who he used to be.
Warnings: brief bout of torture (largely beating) described in moderate detail, not terribly graphic
Recommendation: Buy it, then be prepared to lend it out. I had friends hounding me for my copy before I finished it.

What makes this one great:
Kelly McCullough has previously written the Webmage series, which is an unusual blend of computer hacking and Greek mythology. It manages to give full credit to both sources, but after that one ended I really wasn't sure that he could do the wordbuilding trick so well again. He has, and he's made the transition from the cutting edge of modern to gritty with grace.

From a sheer writing style perspective, Broken Blade is quite impressive. On the third page we're introduced to a character who is "tall for a woman, perhaps matching my own five feet and eleven" and has "hair a few shades darker than my own middling brown." In one paragraph we've gotten descriptions for two major characters out of the way, which sounds small, but consider: how many books have that incredibly worn "wake up and look in the mirror and what do I see" scene? That sort of description normally drags on forever, but McCullough makes it short and vivid. This deft touch thankfully starts a trend that continues through the whole novel; we meet a new character, get a few vivid details in under a page, and then learn the rest of what we need to know on the move by watching them actually do things. Every character, even the bartender we only see twice, has a strong sense of....reality, perhaps, or selfhood.

McCullough has also taken the rare step of creating a familiar with more of a role and more personality than the secondary lead. This isn't to trash Maylien, who manages to be impressive and sexual and strong without playing into either the all-temperature Buffy near-omnipotent Grrl Power box or the trap of just being there to drop plot points. She's well-drawn, I find her problems compelling, and I'd be happy to see more of her in future books. No, this is to say that Triss, the Shade to whom Aral is bonded, has more personality than any familiar I've seen in fantasy before. Familiars tend to provide backup and comic relief, which is well and good, but seeing one as the driving moral force, best friend, and co-conspirator is interesting. Normally the protagonist/familiar dynamic means that the familiar more or less has to put up his or her master's whims instead of reaching out to change the situation without instruction. Triss feels the loss of their old life as keenly as Aral does, and in many ways they're each staying alive for the sake of the other. The noir influence really comes through when they're along in quiet moments, with Aral counting his money and eying the bottle while Triss tries to talk him into living up to his old self.

Everyone who does magic in this world has a familiar who helps shape the sorts of magic he or she can cast and who supports their spells. This is both a great piece of worldbuilding, like the fact that nobles (including women) are all good with a sword to be ready for formal duels to their rule, and a good way to center familiars as integral to using magic. So far, McCullough has done great things with them; we see them notice problems their masters don't, interact with other familiars, and serve as ways of tying the caster's magic. The other excellent worldbuilding touch may seem minor, but realism adds a certain zest to the fight scenes. Most of the martial arts that Aral uses is actually fairly accurate to life, or things that would actually work. After some of the absolutely ridiculous aerial backflips and catching knives mid-flight that I've seen in some magic-laced battles, that was incredibly refreshing. 

One reason Aral works as protagonist even with his powers and Last (almost) of His Kind angst that should make him obnoxious is that he makes realistic mistakes. He's been out of the game for five years and thus does things like lie too well in front of the wrong people, forget that his goddess-granted immunity to some kinds of magic is gone, or lose track of the plan in the heat of battle because he's out of practice. They aren't things that make him seem stupid, or that feel contrived to kick the plot forward, and a lot of them tie into the way the justice goddess he served is dead (assassinated by evil forces) and his whole former self shredded. Aral's mourning for that is palpable, and the buildup of how much he misses who he used to be makes the flashback sequence in the middle really work. His mourning segment talks though how he got the name Kingslayer, and even though you know how it ends, every detail of what happened also reinforces how very much he's changed since that first mission. That set of chapters is absolutely the poster child for how "show, don't tell" is supposed to work.

Aral and Maylien, the secondary lead who requires his assistance, have obvious chemistry and drift to each other, then apart, then close again; this is fairly conventional, but I actually buy the reasons for every single shift in how they interact. There aren't any petty fights over misunderstandings or weird coincidences that keep throwing them together to end the bickering. They have a mission to accomplish, and the rough patches don't stop them from the infiltration and fighting that needs to be done. Both of them are capable of handling themselves in a fight and out of one, so it reads very much as an adult relationship that's limited by circumstances.

The red pen:

The one aspect of the book that's handled clumsily is Aral's drinking problem. The fact of his alcoholism works well, as does the comparison of his old addiction (efik, which is essentially jazzed-up coffee) on the job to his new one. One was very accepted as part of his sacred calling and the other has his familiar scolding him to stop, but they were both desperate dependencies and the comparison does a lot to show how much more nuanced his views has grown since the goddess was killed and his order annihilated. When he starts to sober up, however, it feels clunky. "From here on out I'll be mastering my drinking instead of letting the drink master me" (yes, that's an actual quote) is cliché to the point of eyerolling, and the sentiment keeps cropping up. By the end he's settled into a more matter-of-fact acceptance that he can't do anything important if he's drunk all the time and simply needs to cut it way down. Unfortunately, having to trip over Aral feeling guilty over Triss's disapproval when he needs alcohol for actual medical magic-related reasons just slowed down the more compelling aspects of the story. 

On a more general note, I miss the humor that ran through the Webmage books, though I have to admit that the grimness is a lot more fitting for the broken life and redemption arc. It'll be nice to see how McCullough keeps it from getting too bleak without the constant snark. 

To boil it down, the book is great, and I'd bet on the series being as good as or better than his previous one in a few books. The worldbuilding holds up well, most of the secondary characters who survived have enough depth to make me want to see them again, and it's hard to go wrong with tightly-paced fantasy noir.

Prospects: This is the first in the Fallen Blade series. There's already a sequel advertised in the back of this one, and I'm betting on at least six books. McCullough's left quite a bit of room to explore, and I'm betting the numbers on this one will be good enough to merit more.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The Webmage series, also by McCullough. Some of the character dynamics are similar, although Ravirn, the lead, is much younger and readier to go looking for jokes than Aral is.  

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