It’s sequel time! Not only is it sequel time, this marks the first time I’ve covered both the first and second books on this. Bared Blade is the sequel to Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough. I have thusly decided that thriller fantasy may be my new favorite subgenre. There was no question I was going to read this book. I’ve mentioned before that McCullough is a Shelf of Honor author and if you go back and read the post about book one, I loved that one too. Broken Blade came out over the summer and it was this book I got a whiff of to send me on the track of the first one. I’m going to repeat myself and say it’s a shame this series hasn’t been getting talked about all over the internets, at least not the circles of the internets I haunt. Let’s fix that.
Matching the uptempo pace of the book, we’re rushing off into Back of the Book time!
Former temple assassin Aral Kingslayer is a man with a price on his head and a mark on his soul. After his goddess was murdered, Aral found refuge in the shadow jack business, fixing problems for those on the fringes of Tien’s underworld. It’s a long step down from working for the goddess of justice, but it gives Ara and Triss – the living shadow who is is secret partner – a reason to get up in the morning.
Unfortunately, it’s not a very noble reason. So when two women hit a rough spot in the tavern Aral uses for an office, he and Triss decide to lend a helping hand. But soon their good deed lands them in the middle of a three-way battle to find an artifact that just might be the key to preventing a war. And with so many factions on their trail, Aral and Triss are attracting a lot more attention than anyone featured on ten thousand wanted posters can afford…
Take the praise from Book One and heap it all onto Bared Blade. It’s been a few months since I read the first, and I slid into the second so smoothly, it was like I read them back to back. Take all the things I said about the deft work with the pacing from the first book and apply them here. Repeat for the setting. Tien is a wonderfully formed city. I don’t know why I didn’t compare it to Camorr in Lies of Locke Lamora last time I talked about the city, but I should have. Tien is a city I will look forward to seeing as much as possible, that hasn’t changed a bit. I’m still all up in here with the thriller tropes. The double crosses and layered schemes still feel fresh mixed into the fantasy setting.
So there’s all this stuff that’s still awesome from book one. But writing can’t be stagnant and constantly getting “more of the same” is not really what any writer should be going for. So what’s different with Bared Blade? Where’s the growth.
Well first off, we’ve got Aral again. The character arc across the series and the growth he’s going through is phenomenal. He’s out of the whiskey bottle now but it’s a big temptation to him. His bond with Triss, the living shadow familiar, reflects Aral’s own mental state. We get to see some more of the layers to their bond which were only hinted at in book one. What’s even better, we get to see it actively evolve and grow during the course of this book.
There’s also a sense that Aral is telling us the story over a pint. I think the same tactic was employed in the first one but I feel that it worked better this time. I think this is another reflection of Aral’s mind though. He’s much more coherent this time around now that he’s mostly sober. The storytelling voice stuck with me better this time around.
One of the signs of epic writing for me is the supporting cast. Back in McCullough’s WebMage series, the supporting cast shined, but as it was godpunk, characters like Eris or Odin can with some preexisting baggage. This is one of the areas where McCullough has improved with his writing a lot. The quality, depth and sheer interesting factor of the supporting cast has increased tenfold in Bared Blade. The mage-familiar bond established in the world of these books is unique on it’s own and gets a shot in the arm here. The women Aral backs in the bar in chapter one, Vala and Stel, have extremely unique magic to them. I don’t want to ruin it, even if it is early Act One stuff, because following Aral’s thought process as he comes to terms with it.
The best of the supporting cast is Captain Fei. She plays a role in book one as the watch captain who deals with the underworld to keep it in check for the good of the city. This time we get to find out she’s got layers and a lot of secrets beyond what she holds over Aral’s head in book one. There are a lot of stories waiting to be told with Fei. Seriously. I want to read a novel about Fei. (Really. Can that become a thing?) As is appropriate for the officer in charge of playing with the underworld, Fei plays an important role in Aral’s work again. I hope she shows up again in the next book.
Speaking of the upcoming book… some of what goes on at the end of the scheme is a clear set up for the next one. Ok. That sort of thing is common with second books. Books two and three often tend to tie in tighter than books one and two. That sort of thing bothers some people a lot. While I don’t think it’s a perfect scenario, I’m ok with it in this instance. It plays into the grand series-wide character arc of Aral. The elements introduced into finale are open ended rather than cliffhangers. Aral’s choices are even more difficult than before, living in an area just as grey as the rest of his life. A lot of the choices he made could go either way, gut retching consequences no matter what.
Makes for the best kind of reading.
All the win throughout the book overcome the bumps in the road here. Bared Blade isn’t perfect, but the series is getting closer with each installment. I am excited for the next one and hope some more elements come together with all the things from this book to combine together in the next novel. The possibilities of this series are getting better and better.