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4.3 out of 5 stars
Broken Blade (A Fallen Blade Novel)
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2011
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Dark and complex and real, "Broken Blade" protagonist Aral Kingslayer is a former assassin fallen on hard times, with not much left but his sense of humor and his own shadow. Fortunately, Aral's shadow is Triss, a fiercely loyal Shade familiar who draws magical power from the unknowable realm of the everdark.

I grew up devouring Anne McCaffrey's "Pern" stories, and finding Kelly McCullough's new novel "Broken Blade" was like discovering a grown-up version of a treasure from my childhood. Like the dragons of Pern or the daemons of Pullman's "Dark Materials" trilogy, McCullough's Shades are more than just loyal comrades. Aral's familiar Triss is a dragon-shaped shadow, fierce and earnest and wounded. But he's also a wild card in Aral's nature--a deeply bonded but independent agent who can disrupt Aral's romantic relationships or transform his odds in a fight.

Did I mention there was fighting? Aral Kingslayer's Order of Namara, a group of religious assassins devoted to Justice, has been ruthlessly destroyed. Now Aral is a hunted man, trying to figure out what justice means in a changed world. With urgent, fluid prose, McCullough drives his protagonist from sword fight to assassination to betrayal, leaving readers eager for the next volume in the trilogy.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2012
Format: Mass Market Paperback
The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3.5 stars
Premise: Aral, one of the last of an order of assassins for Namara, the goddess of divine justice, is living in the bottom of a bottle with a price on his head when he gets offered a seemingly simple delivery job. He runs into a former friend and a new enemy, both of whom should have him running from the city where he earned the name of Kingslayer. Instead, with the help of his familiar and a client in need of justice, he tries to right a wrong in the way he used to; things get complicated very quickly. Along the way, he starts to edge back to the remnants of who he used to be.
Warnings: brief bout of torture (largely beating) described in moderate detail, not terribly graphic
Recommendation: Buy it, then be prepared to lend it out. I had friends hounding me for my copy before I finished it.

What makes this one great:

Kelly McCullough has previously written the Webmage series, which is an unusual blend of computer hacking and Greek mythology. It manages to give full credit to both sources, but after that one ended I really wasn't sure that he could do the wordbuilding trick so well again. He has, and he's made the transition from the cutting edge of modern to gritty with grace.

From a sheer writing style perspective, Broken Blade is quite impressive. On the third page we're introduced to a character who is "tall for a woman, perhaps matching my own five feet and eleven" and has "hair a few shades darker than my own middling brown." In one paragraph we've gotten descriptions for two major characters out of the way, which sounds small, but consider: how many books have that incredibly worn "wake up and look in the mirror and what do I see" scene? That sort of description normally drags on forever, but McCullough makes it short and vivid. This deft touch thankfully starts a trend that continues through the whole novel; we meet a new character, get a few vivid details in under a page, and then learn the rest of what we need to know on the move by watching them actually do things. Every character, even the bartender we only see twice, has a strong sense of....reality, perhaps, or selfhood.

McCullough has also taken the rare step of creating a familiar with more of a role and more personality than the secondary lead. This isn't to trash Maylien, who manages to be impressive and sexual and strong without playing into either the all-temperature Buffy near-omnipotent Grrl Power box or the trap of just being there to drop plot points. She's well-drawn, I find her problems compelling, and I'd be happy to see more of her in future books. No, this is to say that Triss, the Shade to whom Aral is bonded, has more personality than any familiar I've seen in fantasy before. Familiars tend to provide backup and comic relief, which is well and good, but seeing one as the driving moral force, best friend, and co-conspirator is interesting. Normally the protagonist/familiar dynamic means that the familiar more or less has to put up his or her master's whims instead of reaching out to change the situation without instruction. Triss feels the loss of their old life as keenly as Aral does, and in many ways they're each staying alive for the sake of the other. The noir influence really comes through when they're along in quiet moments, with Aral counting his money and eying the bottle while Triss tries to talk him into living up to his old self.

Everyone who does magic in this world has a familiar who helps shape the sorts of magic he or she can cast and who supports their spells. This is both a great piece of worldbuilding, like the fact that nobles (including women) are all good with a sword to be ready for formal duels to their rule, and a good way to center familiars as integral to using magic. So far, McCullough has done great things with them; we see them notice problems their masters don't, interact with other familiars, and serve as ways of tying the caster's magic. The other excellent worldbuilding touch may seem minor, but realism adds a certain zest to the fight scenes. Most of the martial arts that Aral uses is actually fairly accurate to life, or things that would actually work. After some of the absolutely ridiculous aerial backflips and catching knives mid-flight that I've seen in some magic-laced battles, that was incredibly refreshing.

One reason Aral works as protagonist even with his powers and Last (almost) of His Kind angst that should make him obnoxious is that he makes realistic mistakes. He's been out of the game for five years and thus does things like lie too well in front of the wrong people, forget that his goddess-granted immunity to some kinds of magic is gone, or lose track of the plan in the heat of battle because he's out of practice. They aren't things that make him seem stupid, or that feel contrived to kick the plot forward, and a lot of them tie into the way the justice goddess he served is dead (assassinated by evil forces) and his whole former self shredded. Aral's mourning for that is palpable, and the buildup of how much he misses who he used to be makes the flashback sequence in the middle really work. His mourning segment talks though how he got the name Kingslayer, and even though you know how it ends, every detail of what happened also reinforces how very much he's changed since that first mission. That set of chapters is absolutely the poster child for how "show, don't tell" is supposed to work.

Aral and Maylien, the secondary lead who requires his assistance, have obvious chemistry and drift to each other, then apart, then close again; this is fairly conventional, but I actually buy the reasons for every single shift in how they interact. There aren't any petty fights over misunderstandings or weird coincidences that keep throwing them together to end the bickering. They have a mission to accomplish, and the rough patches don't stop them from the infiltration and fighting that needs to be done. Both of them are capable of handling themselves in a fight and out of one, so it reads very much as an adult relationship that's limited by circumstances.

The red pen:

The one aspect of the book that's handled clumsily is Aral's drinking problem. The fact of his alcoholism works well, as does the comparison of his old addiction (efik, which is essentially jazzed-up coffee) on the job to his new one. One was very accepted as part of his sacred calling and the other has his familiar scolding him to stop, but they were both desperate dependencies and the comparison does a lot to show how much more nuanced his views has grown since the goddess was killed and his order annihilated. When he starts to sober up, however, it feels clunky. "From here on out I'll be mastering my drinking instead of letting the drink master me" (yes, that's an actual quote) is cliché to the point of eyerolling, and the sentiment keeps cropping up. By the end he's settled into a more matter-of-fact acceptance that he can't do anything important if he's drunk all the time and simply needs to cut it way down. Unfortunately, having to trip over Aral feeling guilty over Triss's disapproval when he needs alcohol for actual medical magic-related reasons just slowed down the more compelling aspects of the story.

On a more general note, I miss the humor that ran through the Webmage books, though I have to admit that the grimness is a lot more fitting for the broken life and redemption arc. It'll be nice to see how McCullough keeps it from getting too bleak without the constant snark.

To boil it down, the book is great, and I'd bet on the series being as good as or better than his previous one in a few books. The worldbuilding holds up well, most of the secondary characters who survived have enough depth to make me want to see them again, and it's hard to go wrong with tightly-paced fantasy noir.

For ongoing recommendations about similar books, check out this post at Red Pen Reviews.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2011
Format: Mass Market Paperback
The Broken Blade series reminded me of a lighter version of the book Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick (a fantastic book if you haven't read it.)

Broken Blade is perfect for a fan of political/hierarchal conspiracy in a fantasy series.

Aral is a fantastic broken character that readers will love to learn more about, in fact this was one of my favorite parts of the story. McCullough does a fantastic job creating an engaging yet realistic tale of how a once great assassin and religious follow could be broken made into the "jack" acting outside the law we see today. It's fascinating hearing Aral's stories how he killed the king, and how he grew up with his fellow followers of Namara. Not only that but the idea that if a religious follower's goddess died, what the ramifications would be, is a fascinating premise.

Of course Aral isn't the only interesting character in the book, I also enjoyed Triss. Triss is Aral's shadow familiar who also looks a little like a dragon when he's not impersonating Aral's shadow. Triss has cool powers, and is definitely his own established character. The only issue I have with Triss is that Triss isn't as complex as I'd want him to be. He's strong and makes a great sidekick but sometimes I'd be nice if he was a little bit more, or if we knew more about his kinds back story. That said I realize this is an unreasonable expectation as detailing more of Triss's back story and adventures could in itself be an entire new series.

That said, this book isn't just great characters and intricate political plots, it's also filled with some heart pounding action. As Aral is forced to confront great foes and powerful former friends, the story is positively bursting with excitement. McCullough also does a great job creating an interesting world of magic and ramifications. I'd have liked a bit more of a run through with what is possible in this world, but I'm sure readers will get a greater grasp on it as the series goes on.

All in all Broken Blade is a fun first book. It's got action, appealing characters (especially the librarian), great back stories, and an interesting magic system. Because of all of these things I'd recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to the next in the series, Bared Blade.

[...]
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I read a review comparing this to Brent Weeks night angel trilogy which I loved so this was a bit of a let down. It was good and I enjoyed it and can see the comparison, but for starters it was really kinda slow and a bit boring to begin. I understand this is the first book in a trilogy I think so it takes time to set everything up, but it took awhile to really get into or even care about what was going on. The story did pick up and was interesting and did finally have some action, and by the end I am left wanting to read more, but not really anything exceptional about this book. Will read the next installment now that all the background info is laid and hope for a bit more next time.
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17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2012
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I will begin this by saying I loved every one of the Cybermage books. I was sad to see them end. So when I saw that the author had a new work out, I was very excited to read it. I will tell you now, this book does not even appear to be written by the same person. One of the first rules of writing is to show not tell. The author breaks this rule right and left. It is the book's biggest weakness. There is so much exposition in this story that I found myself SKIMMING huge sections just to get to the main action. This story, already a relatively short 266 pages could have been edited down to nice 150 or less easily. Where I flew through the Cybermage books, I slogged through this one, only finishing it because I rarely leave a book unread after I start it. The second problem with this book is utterly unlikeable characters. I had so little sympathy or respect for Aral, the central character of the novel, that I couldn't care less what happened to him. Even though you KNOW because the books spends a lot of time TELLING you that Aral was once quite an awesome sacred assassin, you don't buy it all. He is not particular sharp, innovative, or skilled, though you are TOLD he is by the author. The other central characters in this book, Maylien, Devin, and Sumey, are given similar weak treatment. You never understand what really motivates these characters to do anything. And I actually think Maylien is the worst female character KM has written. She has no depth at all. There is no reason to care about her so the reader again could care less what happens to her. Finally, the dialogue in the novel is inane. It reads as if written by a 14 year old. And not a skilled one. I could go on: poor world building, undeveloped magic system, weak plotting...really, there is nothing really good about the book.

The only reason I did not give this 1 star is because the shade concept is interesting. Triss has potential though he is not near as interesting nor as well developed as Ravyn's computer familiar.

I don't think I will be reading any more of this series. Honestly, this book was just bad. I can't believe KM wrote it. I expected much more of an author who wrote such a strong first series.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2012
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I almost never give a 5 star review but really I did love this book. This is the story of a once great assassin divinely ordained to deliver jusctice often to those who normally justice cannot touch. The idea of this book is really original not a person who fell from grace but one whose goddess was killed. Instead of trying to get revenge he finds that his whole sense of self disappear as his meaning for living and all his friends die with her.

Bad
- I thought the main character could of been a little bit more bad ass. But that is not to say he is not just that I would of liked to see him be a little more.

Good
- Great character development you feel for Aral and Triss for what they lost. You see how they want to be more than what they are now and how much it hurts them to see how far they have fallen. Aral's character is compelling as he gives not excuses but at the same time owns up to his mistakes. Triss is his constant companion and really they are all each other have.
- Magic system was interesting and explained enough to give you a working knowledge but I think in the next books it will be more fully fleshed out. Which I will eagerly wait for.
- The female lead was developed nicely and you could see in her a dual personality of who she is fighting against who she wants to become. She is used to one style of living and now must change everything about herself to be who she thinks she must.
- The world and the background are frankly amazing you get to see Arals past history through his memories and I thought it was done just enough not so much as to distract but enough for you to really see how far they have fallen.

Overall
A really great book with a lot to offer a reader interesting world, good characters that are fleshed out, fun plot with some interesting turns. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy with a clear conscience and I will be reading the sequal.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2014
Format: Mass Market PaperbackVerified Purchase
The ideas in this novel are really fascinating, but the author's follow-through leaves a lot to be desired. The writing is functional, if slightly juvenile and cliched at times, and the main character is engaging, if slightly under-developed. Other characters are pretty two-dimensional.

Where this book shines is the familiar concept. There is so much potential, but it also leaves a lot of questions and inconsistencies unaddressed. There is also the potential for an interesting political backstory, but again the author fails to flesh it out enough to really deliver. A bit disappointed, in the end.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
This was a pretty good book.

The book features a former assassin for the Goddess of Justice who is down on his luck. He's down on his luck because the goddess for whom he and his order of assassins worked has been killed by the other gods, virtually all of his former order executed, and as a result of his depression and the bounty on his head he is reduced to a drunken thief for hire. The story is about how this "broken blade" begins to find a purpose for his life and gain his self respect.

The main character is nicely fleshed out. The supporting characters could use a bit more depth; the bad guys a lot more...with the exception of one villain, they are basically cutouts. The one bad guy who is somewhat developed, though still insufficiently so in my opinion, is the main character's former best friend and former member of the main character's now-destroyed order who has "turned to the dark side" (my metaphor). We never truly get to understand why this former friend has turned evil.

But the story is good. It moves briskly for the most part and the action scenes are well written. The underlying world the author has created is interesting.

I will buy a sequel.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Until a small handful of years ago, Aral had been a Blade of Namara. He had been a human weapon, honed to the finest edge possible by the training of the temple. The Blade of Justice made flesh. His purpose was to bring death to those who deserved it, as ordered by his goddess, Namara. Since he was a child, Aral had been bonded to Triss, a dragon-shaped Shade that lived in his shadow. The powers Triss wielded became an extension of Aral's will. However, five years ago the Emperor of Heaven killed Namara and her followers had been executed. Very few Blades survived.

Aral and Triss now keep a low profile. Aral is a shadow jack, doing occasional shady jobs and drinking himself unconscious. When a mysterious woman named Maylien hires Aral to deliver a secret message for a high wage, he knows that there must be a catch. But Aral is bored and Triss prods him to take the commission. Aral soon discovers that Maylien never intended for him to deliver the letter but rather to witness a clandestine meeting between the Baroness Marchon and Devin Urslan, a former Blade. Until now Aral had believed Devin to be dead. Instead, his fellow Blade is alive and has become a traitor to the priesthood. Worse, having learned that Aral is alive too, Devin intends to coerce Aral into helping him create an army of assassins unbound by any ethical restriction.

In the meantime, Aral is busy helping Maylien gain the baronial seat. Maylien is the true heir to the Barony of Marchon. Currently her wicked sister holds the position and the people suffer because of it. In order for Maylien to take the baronial seat, she must kill her sister in a proper duel. Problem is that Maylien must get close enough to her sister so she can issue a blood challenge.

***** FIVE STARS! This is the first of a new series filled with multifaceted characters, layered plots, and the type of quixotic scenarios that only the imagination of Kelly McCullough could possibly create. The author, once again, crosses genres. (I expect him to break the Fourth Wall [between fiction and reality] any day now.) And though a secret order of assassins has been done by writers in the past, McCullough goes the extra mile. The main characters are magical and each has a unique familiar with various abilities that they share with their human. Of course this also means that any weakness the familiar has could become a serious problem should a foe learn of it.

Stories by Kelly McCullough are one-of-a-kind - just like him. I found Aral's world to be compelling and highly addictive. Brilliant! *****

Reviewed by Detra Fitch of Huntress Reviews.
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on January 1, 2015
Format: Mass Market PaperbackVerified Purchase
As in many recent novels I read, the main character of the novel Aral Kingslayer is more an anti-hero, not very congenial and rather drawn towards booze and self-loathing. He is one of the last remaining Assassins of a religion which goddess got killed (with very little explanations on how and why this happened). Maybe this is a good enough explanation for his current psychological state, hence the “broken” in the title, but that does not make him more endearing! The story itself is more of a sleuthing one, Aral acting as the detective for hire and another character as the client seeking to recover her inheritance. (With the more unusual add-ons of ghouls and zombies and magics. And the more usual theme of corrupted police officers.) Nothing earth-shattering and still a pleasant ride (that made me once miss my metro station!).
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