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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