SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS: The Duelist Trilogy Book One by Julia Knight (cover by Wendy Chen, all rights to current holder) shows that even in a light-hearted romp, you have to make your protagonists sweat if you want to keep me (and, I’m guessing, others), interested.
The Setting: A city state in upheaval. Guns (of a steampunky clockwork nature) are replacing swords, the clockwork manufacturers have become the new ruling class and the guild of duelists—the greatest sword-wielders alive—is seeing itself slide into obsolescence.
The Protagonists: Sibling duelist legends Vocho and Kacha, now cast out from the Guild and struggling to make ends meet as masked bandits.
The Story: The sibs’ latest robbery not only brings them up against Kacha’s old lover, but a sinister blood-mage (all magic, it seems, has to be wrought in blood). Vocho and Kacha escape with a mysterious chest containing something valuable—which of course, turns out to be far more important than they imagine.
In-between the main arc, flashbacks follow the siblings through their lives from 20 years ago up to the start of the book.
What Worked: Knight has good characters, decent action scenes, good descriptions, and creepy magic. The wizard with a pot of ink made from his own blood, blood-marked tats and little notes—pre-set spells—written in blood—is quite repellent.
What I Learned: Despite everything that worked the book produced an overwhelming sense of “Meh” in me. I think the main reason is that as neither Vocho nor Kacha take things seriously, I can’t either.
Consider the opening highway robbery. Despite having lost their guild, their income, their good name, one of them her true love, the only thing that really bothers the siblings is that their fancy clothes are getting drenched in the rain. And they forget to give their victims their new outlaw names, which they would like to become famous. And it rarely goes beyond that level of “Oh, bother” reaction. If they think everything is a lark and a romp, like I said above it’s hard for me to care.
I’m not saying this should have been grimdark, but even in light-hearted romps, people can be frustrated, struggle, panic that they won’t get what they wanted. Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling Robin Hood has plenty of light-hearted fun, but it’s also got Robin of Locksley dedicated to overthrowing the usurper Prince John, and he takes that gig plenty seriously. In PG Wodehouse, people take whatever’s going on incredibly seriously, that’s part of the fun. Either Bertie Wooster’s trying to get rid of his latest fiancee (he acquires those accidentally a lot) or someone else is pining for the man/woman they can’t have, etc. etc. It’s light-hearted, but it’s still intense.
This book? Very little intensity. The longer I read the more disengaged I got. A shame.
Something That Isn’t The Author’s Fault: I’ve mentioned before that I hate covers that try to hook me with the image of a person that tells me nothing other than “there is a person in this book.” Chen’s cover is better than the usual of this sort, but still I can’t see why it should prompt me to pick up the book. Which it didn’t: I was checking out the new books at the library and selected two or three I thought might make a good candidate for Is Our Writer’s Learning? The cover didn’t help at all.