Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan

Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan is the third novel in the King's Blades series. In book two, Lord of the Fire Lands, the reader is left hanging at the end as history inexplicably unfolds in a different fashion compared to what was told in the first novel in the series. Duncan not only has some explaining to do, but, as a writer myself, I was curious to see how he was going to handle this inconsistent situation. I wasn't disappointed in the storytelling or the characters, but I was a little at the ultimate conclusion. Still, I'll give the author some credit: it was something you don't often see done in a fantasy novel, and while I did see where things were going about halfway through, the ride getting there was still fun.

In this installment our point-of-view character is Princess Malinda, daughter of the King of Chivial, which is the principal realm we are concerned with in book one of the series. Similar to how Lord of the Fire Lands was laid out, the story is part past, part present, but always told from Malinda's viewpoint. The novel opens with Malinda locked in prison, accused of high treason against the king. Of course, we know from the second book that the king, her father, is dead, and so the question of who is the current king is just one of many as the story unfolds.

It's interesting that Duncan chose Malinda as the primary viewpoint character. While she shows up in the previous two novels, it is mostly as cameo roles. In those, she is depicted as a spoiled child with little depth. This changes in Sky of Swords as she is forced to grow up fast or crumple beneath the political and royal weight laid upon her. Durendal (the hero and main character from the first novel) once again is present, this time as a secret advisor as Durendal must fear for his own life: Calls for the disbanding of the Blades grow louder after the king's death; anyone associated with them past or present must be wary. But Malinda casts a bold strike when she Binds four Blades to her, thus creating a group called the Princess's Blades.

Sky of Swords is an adventure novel first and foremost, but contains more court and political drama than the first two novels as Malinda must contend for the throne with a cousin and half-brother. Malinda is a likeable character whose personality we learn is quite different from her previous portrayal as we come to realize Duncan's characters are not always the most reliable narrators.

I liked Sky of Swords, but I did find the final solution to setting things right a bit of a letdown. Not to give anything away, but it was a very Superman-like ending. Still, it was a fun read and I'm looking forward to jumping into the next novel, Paragon Lost.

Lord of the Fire Lands by Dave Duncan

Lord of the Fire Lands by Dave Duncan is the second in the King's Blades novels. While it largely stands on its own, it is still intertwined with events that take place in the first novel, The Gilded Chain. In fact, Duncan drops a bomb at the end of Lord of the Fire Lands which directly contradicts events that take place in The Gilded Chain. At first, I had to wonder if I was remembering things wrong (I'd just finished the first book, so I was pretty sure I hadn't), or if I'd missed some subtle hint that would explain why history was not about to follow the path set out in The Gilded Chain. In the end, I realized Duncan had just dropped one of the biggest hooks I'd ever seen for wanting to rush out and buy the next novel in the series (that being Sky of Swords).

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's stick with Lord of the Fire Lands first.

Our main characters are Raider and Wasp, both King's Blades in training who are called into service by King Ambrose. This is what King's Blades do. It is what they are recruited for, what they train for, and what they most want to do in order to bring honor to themselves and to their liege. There is no greater privilege for a Blade than to serve the King. Problem is, both Raider and Wasp refuse their liege.

What unfolds is a story narrated by Raider, whose real name is Radgar, who we come to learn is not of Chivial. Radgar hails from Bael, the Fire Lands, whose people are the sworn enemies of the Chivians. The first part of the novel is consumed by this narration, which is done very well and shows us that the Baels are not the fire-eating barbarians the Chivians believe them to be. Instead, they are colorful and sophisticated in their own way, but chillingly cold in others, as in when they "enthrall" Chivian captives, effectively turning them into soulless shells. Much of this story unfolds through Radgar' father's eyes, and so it is only when Radgar comes into his own that we jump back to the present.

From the telling of Radgar's story, Ambrose knows he can never let Radgar return home, and so he devises a hurried plot to lock the boy up for the rest of his life. Radgar, accompanied by his now sworn Blade, Sir Wasp, escapes, returns to Bael, and there tries to claim what is rightfully his.

It is then, as the novel concludes, that Duncan drops his bomb. I won't go into what it is, as giving it away could be considered a bit of a spoiler. But it's significant enough that I immediately started reading the next novel in the series, Sky of Swords.

My impression of Duncan continues to improve with this latest novel. His stories are enjoyable, engaging, and very well-written. He tends to use a lot of words from Old English; my Kindle's built-in dictionary is perhaps its best and most used feature. I started reading Sky of Swords immediately after finishing Lord of the Fire Lands and, in fact, just finished it this morning. Look for that review next.

Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook

Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook is the first of the Garrett, P.I., novels set in Cook's pseudo-urban/traditional fantasy world. Glen Cook is perhaps best known for The Black Company series. Unfortunately, Sweet Silver Blues follows in that series' knack for introducing confusion and leading the reader on such a herky-jerky path that it's nearly impossible to see how one dot is connected to another.

That being said, it's not all bad. Cook presents a colorful array of bruisers, Garrett is about as moody and cynical as any private investigator has a right to be, and the case he set’s himself upon is solid and straightforward. But the pursuit of clues is a slow one as Garrett and his motley companions travel abroad to the Cantard, a sort of front where a war is being waged. Monsters abound, including some of the more well-known types—elves, centaurs, unicorns, and vampires—along with some that are new, like the grolls that accompany Garrett. There's plenty of backstabbing and double-crosses, and a climatic, no-hold's barred finale. But it takes a long time to get there. The novel weighs in at a modest 311 pages; not long by any means, but, still, it could have been about 50 pages shorter.

Although I was not completely satisfied with the storytelling, I did finish Sweet Silver Blues (if that means anything). I also only read the first of The Black Company books, which were also written by Glen Cook. I think this series is going to get the same consideration. I think I have to conclude that me and Cook are just not compatible.

Book Review: Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris

Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris is a melding of two of my favorite genres: traditional fantasy and the noir, hard-boiled detective tales of such characters as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. In many ways you get what you expect here: a tough but endearing detective, plenty of buxom babes, and a colorful cast of villains, some dim-witted, others cunning. Taking place in 1920's Chicago, the kicker and what sets this novel apart is the fact that our hero, Billibub Baddings, is a four foot dwarf from another world.

Seeking to save his own world from a plethora of powerful talismans that have fallen into the wrong hands, Billibub makes a final, desperate attempt to destroy them by casting them into a magical portal. In the process, he is also sucked into the portal; he figures his life is worth the price. But instead of dying, Billibub finds himself transported to our own world. Later, as the story unfolds, he learns that the talismans, like himself, live on.

As the story begins, we find Billibub already settled into his new life; the above is given as back-story. He faces many of the daily headaches we might expect: finding the next client, paying the rent, keeping his secretary and assistant happy. But the story really begins when the rich and beautiful Julia Lesinger enters Billibub's office. Our dwarven detective is hired to investigate the death of Julia's boyfriend, a man who Billibub soon learns has mob ties and, more ominously, a link to an artifact found in a Egyptian burial dig that is a bit out of place. Billibub takes the case, following the trail until it leads him to the artifact that is the Singing Sword, one of the talismans he thought destroyed when he hurled it into the portal.

I have to mention that I listened to this novel in audio format. Hailed as the first ever podiobook—that is, a reading embellished by sound effects and an ensemble of voice actors portraying the novel's different characters—it was an absolute joy consuming it in this fashion. The production quality is top-notch, the voices excellent and, in most cases, very fitting, and the use of sound effects was just right.

Whether you read or listen, you have to consider that much of the humor and storytelling is tongue-in-cheek; Morris embraces many traditional fantasy tropes, but they exist only as embellishments and oftentimes for humor as the principal story takes place in the "real" world. But, of course, even that has its own set of stereotypes, especially as the story follows the typical formula of most hard-boiled detective novels. But Morris injects plenty of dwarven wit into the telling that I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times.

I do have to wonder why Morris chose a name so like Bilbo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings fame, but that's a minor qualm. This is the kind of audio book that I'd listen to again, and I've already told my wife she needs to hear it, too.

Tee Morris has podcasted many of his other books. He was the man behind The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy, a writing advice podcast which is now defunct, and he was both a contributor and editor of the books in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy series. The next novel in the0 Billibub Baddings Mystery series is The Case of the Pitcher's Pendant.

The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan

The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan is the first in his six book King's Blade series. While the story in each novel takes places in the same world, each work stands alone as a tale unto itself. This first book tells the story of Durendal, a waif with little future who is recruited to become a King's Blade, a swashbuckling swordsman bound by magic to serve either the king or whoever the king so chooses.

The enchantment is important as it defines the identities of the Blades as a whole. It goes beyond mere allegiance as each Blade is bound magically to protect, serve, and always hold their ward's safety and life in the highest regard. Blades do not sleep, they can stomach only one glass of wine when on duty, and they look upon everyone with suspicion or at least as a potential threat. They do not do this willingly; the enchantment makes them. While there is great loss of freedom in choosing to serve as a King's Blade, it is also considered the highest honor.

Durendal is, of course, special. It is a common practice for each Blade to take the name of a previous Blade and, in doing so, aspire to live up to the previous Blade's deeds. There is one name, Durendal, that none will take for the bar was set too high when that first Durendal served. Not so for our young hero as he claims the name for himself and not only meets the challenge but far exceeds it. What begins as a bit of a predictable tale, with Durendal bound to a nothing lordling, does an about face when that lordling is killed early on. The tale picks up from there, introducing a completely different tale from what one expected based on the book's summary. This works out for the best, for Durendal is sent to learn the whereabouts of a missing Blade and to unravel the mystery of a gladiatorial arena where the gladiators cannot be killed.

I've been reading a bit of Duncan's work lately, namely The Alchemist series of Venetian fantasy/mysteries, which is one of his more recent works. The Gilded Chain goes back a bit to 1998. It's interesting to note the differences in style between this book and Duncan's more recent novels. I can see signs of maturation in both the author's ability to tell a tale and in his writing chops. Regardless, The Gilded Chain is exceptionally written, with a good balance of endearing characters, plot intrigue, adventure, and even a bit of mystery. Duncan does an excellent job of bringing the overall story full circle with a bit of a twist ending that I did not see coming.

The Gilded Chain is a fun read and I'm looking forward to picking up the next book in the series.