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.
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