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WesternSFA
Broken Blade
by Kelly McCullough
Ace Books, 2011, $7.99, 288pp
Release Date: November 29, 2011

McCullough is one of the Twin Cities writers who constitute the Wyrdsmiths, the second generation of amazingly great SF writers who call Minnesota home. If you haven’t read anything by him yet, go to his webpage and check out his short stories; the stylistic variety and talent for storytelling he evinces is breathtaking. As a teacher, I have used several of his short fiction in my literature class; they have proved hugely popular with my high school students.

Broken Blade is the first book in a new series; the sequel, Bared Blade, is due out in July, to be followed fairly quickly by Fallen Blade and Crossed Blades.

The background and setting are exquisitely crafted. Usually modern cities or vaguely European middle-ages are the backdrop for fantasy; McCullough has chosen to use Chinese geography and a marvelous pantheon that includes a variation of the goddess Kali. Her province is retribution brought against the untouchable, the rulers and administrators who are outside or above the laws. Her devotees, trained assassins called Blades, are magically linked to creatures of shadow that can share their abilities through the bond. Together, as agents of the goddess, these human-shadow Blades put fear in the hearts of those more accustomed to meting out terror than experiencing it.

But the goddess’ power was broken; the goddess herself slain by a rival deity; her followers killed outright or captured and tortured. A few eluded capture. One of these is the narrator, Aral Kingslayer, who has been lurking in the shadow edges of civilization, drowning his anger and grief in alcohol. He occasionally works as a shadow jack, running less than legal, but not lethal errands for anyone who will pay him enough to make it worth his while. But he has to be careful; attracting the wrong kind of attention would mean one more Blade added to the Dead list.

Aral gets drawn into an intrigue when a young woman, Maylien, hires him to investigate the actions of a countess. In the course of events Aral is horrified to discover that one of his brother assassins is now working for the ruling elite. Slowly he awakens to the realization that his love for what the murdered goddess represented – justice – is stronger than either his anger or his despair.

No mere summary can convey the wonders of this story. It is a Romance in every sense of the word. It abounds with fantastic elements: besides the shadow creatures, there are the stone dogs that the king’s Elite guards use to hunt renegades, and undead who prey on the living. The story concept is heroic, epic, and the execution is really flawless. (Besides being a genius, it is obvious the McCullough enjoys a first rate set of readers and kibitzers.) Cynicism alternates with insight; high-charged, adrenaline-laced action sequences are balanced by lyrical descriptors. But there is something else, something more, for McCullough’s stories have that rarest of qualities: the ring of truth. My mind, my very soul feels cleaner, brighter, from reading this book. – Chris R. Paige

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