I discovered Kelly McCullough’s WebMage series a few years ago and found his unique interpretation of computers and mythology fascinating. With Broken Blade, the first book in a published trilogy, he has branched out into a more traditional assassin fantasy. Alas, while McCullough does bring inspired character development to a rather traditional story, I found it paled in comparison to the WebMage series. Broken Blade opens in a tavern, where a former religious master is struggling with the loss of his order, sinking himself in drink and taking jobs of dubious ethics to finance his subsistence lifestyle. A clandestine meeting with a mystery woman (in a red dress, no less) provides an opportunity for some coin, and to introduce the reader to Aral’s over-active shadow-familiar. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the woman’s errand lures him out of the taverns and into deeper currents of kingdom politics and his former identity. Partway through the job, Aral discovers something he once believed is no longer true.
While the overarching story is not particularly unusual, McCullough always has a fascinating spin on his world building. As Aral argues with his Shadow, Triss, we learn Aral’s backstory, a master assassin in a religious order who served a goddess of justice. Although certainly the concept of ‘justice’ could lend itself to an ambiguous morality, nearly all the wrongs mentioned are egregious and lend a particularly ethical bent to a potential anti-hero. Unfortunately, after the goddess used Aral to punish a king, retaliation by the king’s successor wipes out the order, and presumably kills the goddess; Aral is one of the few devotees remaining and has a price on his head.
Characterization is where McCullough shines. Creatively taking the standard fantasy mage-familiar bond, he gives it an unusual dimension by pairing the assassins with a ‘Shade’ from another realm. The Shade Triss occupies Aral’s shadow, and the permanent bond that results is one of the only things left holding Aral to life. I like the relationship between Aral and Triss, the shadow. Both stretch their limits, developing new skills and understanding of each other. There are other branches of mages working with other types of familiars, and if it perhaps seems cutesy at times–looking at you gryphinx–it’s still an interesting relationship. Similar themes resides within the Webmage works as well, along with the evolution of the dependent into independent, so I look forward to seeing what he does here.
Much of the emotion of the story centers around Aral’s notion of identity and justice. When with the order, he was young and unquestioning in his devotion. Now that the order is gone, he’s lost his faith, but with his latest job, finds himself finally asking the hard questions. How can one believe in a dead god? Where does identity come from? If the order was about justice for the wronged or dead, what does that imply about justice now? It’s an interesting character struggle that actually shows development over time, rather than wallowing in self-pity and depression.
Pacing is perhaps a tad uneven, vacillating between world-building and fight scenes. A romantic storyline is awkwardly inserted and somewhat trope-burdened, leading me to feel it would have been better to have skipped it altogether. World-building was standard medieval fantasy with vague Asian overtones, and except for a few memories with the order, insufficiently fleshed out and not particularly unique. Plotting was unremarkable. I get the feeling that someone was checking necessary plot-points on the current fantasy success list (fight scenes–check; kingkiller–check; gypsies–check; smart but tough woman who challenges hero–check).
Despite my criticisms, however, it was a far more pleasant read than many assassin stories, especially The Way of Shadows, largely because of more coherent storytelling, stronger female characterization and more robust character development. I’ll check the next book out.
Three Shadowed stars.