SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS by Julia Knight

“A projectile weapon is only for those with no class or no balls.”

SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS centers around a pair of siblings, Kacha and Vocho, who were once the best young swordspeople the duelists’ guild had to offer. But the duo fallen on hard times under mysterious circumstances, and they now making their living as highwaymen. They happen to rob a carriage carrying key documents, Kacha’s former lover and a magician (admittedly, the whole plot relies on this rather sizeable coincidence). Now, as they seek to find out exactly what it is they’ve stolen, they uncover layers of secrets about the king, the prelate who now runs the city, the duelists guild and even themselves.

The story has enough action in the early-going to avoid being dull, but until Kacha and Vocho start piecing the mystery together, the setup isn’t terribly interesting. It isn’t until they get back into the city and start to unravel the plots around them that the story really comes to life.

The city of Reyes is built around clockwork that reorganizes the city streets and buildings in regular intervals. While the clockwork is steady and dependable, the politics of the city are anything but. When Kacha and Vocho were children, the king and his nobles were overthrown during a rebellion led by Bakar, who declares the Clockwork God the city’s official faith and is now determined to knock the duelists’ guild down a peg. As Kacha and Vocho put the pieces together, they soon learn that no one is exactly who they say they are, including one another.

It wasn’t until after I’d completed SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS that I realized Julia Knight and Francis Knight, author of the Rojan Dizon novels (FADE TO BLACK, BEFORE THE FALL, LAST TO RISE) were the same person. In retrospect, the books have a lot of similarities in terms of the style of world-building and the characters’ sense of humor.

The Rojan Dizon novels began stronger than SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS, but as the story goes along, this novel does a better job of delving into the characters, their motivations and their histories. It takes a while for the plot to get moving, but once it does the story comes into its own. Knight makes frequent use of flashbacks to flesh out her characters, which was certainly effective, but may also frustrate readers who don’t appreciate the constant time jumps.

Ultimately, while I wasn’t always a fan of seeing the story interrupted for another flashback, I have to admit that it was exceptionally effective in helping us understand our characters and the city in which they live. The story doesn’t solely rely upon Kacha and Vocho — there aren’t many supporting characters, but the few we meet are interesting. Dom seems like a dunce in the book’s opening scenes, but turns out to be a surprisingly helpful resource for the siblings.

Petri Eggimont, initially presented as a villain, turns out to be arguably the most complex character in the entire novel, and certainly earns a place as a third lead. Watching him realize that neither the king nor the prelate nor Eneko the duelist guildmaster are who he thought they were makes the reader realize that this city may not have any good solutions — no matter who comes into power, there simply isn’t a knight in shining armor waiting to save the day. Instead it has to settle for two swordmasters who spend as much time fighting each other as they do the bad guys.

I don’t know if that’s good news for the city, but it makes for a story that grows on the reader as it goes along.

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THE THIEF WHO SPAT IN LUCK’S GOOD EYE by Michael McClung

I was lucky enough to be introduced to Michael McClung’s Amra Therys series by Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, and came away impressed with McClung’s tight, compelling noir story. It was a trim, enjoyable tale with an interesting protagonist and a plot that kept the action coming.

In THE THIEF WHO SPAT IN LUCK’S GOOD EYE, McClung changes the formula. TROUBLE’S BRAIDS was strictly limited to the city in which Amra lived, but we barely get a few pages into LUCK’S GOOD EYE before Amra and Holgren are off in search of the lost city of Thagoth on a quest for the secret to immortality. In the first book, McClung made Lucernis feel like a real city by introducing us to scores of interesting characters who made the city feel vibrant and alive. But here, the outer world seems largely unpopulated, and almost everyone we meet is either immortal, a monster or both.

The setting is just a symptom of the changed focus, as brief interludes are interspersed between scenes. In these interludes, we see the gods Kerf and Isin looking down on Amra and Holgren from the heavens. While Kerf’s confusion as to why Amra constantly uses “Kerf’s balls” as a swear term is amusing, for the most part, these scenes didn’t do much for me, and the idea that the gods were playing a hands-on role in Amra’s adventures didn’t bring any additional stakes or excitement to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, that was part of a trend. When Amra and Holgren eventually find the city of Thagoth, they soon find themselves in the midst of a battle between a powerful sorceror and two immortal gods, a battle that requires Amra and Holgren to understand a long history between the key players. This probably has more to do with my interests than McClung’s skill as a writer and storyteller, but I found myself largely disinterested. I was also uninterested (and, admittedly, a bit confused by) Amra’s new love interest, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

The story wasn’t helped by the discovery that one god’s blood could bring dead characters back to life, which ends up becoming something of a crutch throughout the story — so much so that one character is brought back to life twice.

On the plus side, Amra remains the same strong, principled protagonist as before, even as we get a chance to explore her dark past and why she continues to see herself as a questionable character. Her flashbacks were illuminating and lent depth to a character I already liked.

Ultimately TROUBLE’S BRAIDS was a very personal story, in which Amra investigates a friend’s murder and shows that she’s willing to go to incredible lengths to find the truth. In LUCK’S GOOD EYE, the stakes are raised, but the story feels far less personal, and I found myself disappointed as a result.