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Bared Blade
by Kelly McCullough
Ace Books, 2012, $7.99, 291pp
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Here is the sequel to Broken Blade, with Crossed Blades to follow in quick succession in December. You can pick this one up as a stand alone if you find it first, for McCullough is a gentleman and a pukka writer who tells a complete story in each book; nevertheless, you will probably enjoy Bared Blade more if you know the backstory.

Aral Kingslayer is one of the last of the Blades, assassins dedicated to the goddess of Justice, men and women who brought the point of justice to corrupt judges, rapacious lords, and tyrants. Blades not only received training from monks and a certain divine protection from their goddess, each formed a symbiotic alliance with a particular Shade, a magical entity with powers of concealment and perceptions that it shares with its partnered Blade. When the goddess was killed, murdered by the Emperor of Heaven – and the fact that gods can be killed is one of the interesting details of this world – most of the Blades were caught and put to death as well, but some chose to work for the new king as his enforcers, alongside the feared Elite, who guard the king and patrol the streets with their stone dogs. A few Blades eluded capture, however, and Aral is one of these.

Aral and his dragon-shaped Shade, Triss, take commission jobs these days. He’s crawled out of the bottle that was his quasi-suicidal solace for 5 years and decided that even if he can no longer serve divine Justice with a capital J, he will still be an agent of the idea and ideal of justice. It can sometimes be hard to recognize right from wrong in the convolutions of human dealings, so Aral tends to be cautious in his undertakings, but, as another author so rightly observed, “When a man wishes to do well, truly wishes with his heart and not his rag of a tongue, he will not go far wrong.” (Paraphrased from George MacDonald.)

At the urging of his own heart’s promptings and Triss’ intuition, Aral teams up with an unusual entity, a Dyad, consisting of paired warriors and a tertium quid, a self-aware presence that links them together and has a mind and will of its own. Dyads are rather like the neighboring country’s version of Blades, but more concerned with preventive maintenance than righting wrongs. Vala and Stel, the human components of the Dyad, are on a terribly sensitive and compromised mission: a certain item has been stolen, and both their personal honors and the honor of their ruler hinges on reclaiming the artifact and delivering it to its intended recipient. These are political waters, fouler than any sewer, and Aral spends a lot of time getting wet. Worst of all, his identity as a surviving Blade gets outed, and everybody who’d like a quick fortune is on the hunt for him.

Well written, well told, a perfect blend of action, imaginative world-building, and character-driven narrative, this is one of the best books of the year. Strongly recommended. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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