A foaming tankard for public libraries. If mine hadn’t featured Alex Bledsoe‘s engrossing debut novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, I doubt I’d have ever discovered it.
Granted, I only discovered it because of the quasi-garish cover and title (neither of which has much to do with the actual story), picking it up just to shake my head at one more piece of fantasy trash. But then I read the cover blurbs from Charles de Lint and Orson Scott Card, which were positive enough to overcome my natural revulsion to pulp detective stories in fantasy settings (which usually aren’t half as clever as their creators think). The author should buy them tankards, too.
The plot of the The Sword-Edged Blonde is deceptively and satisfyingly complex. Eddie LaCrosse is an aging mercenary who tends to take jobs that require more mind than metal (though he’ll gladly use both). He accepts a job to find a missing princess, but one thing leads to another, and soon he’s in his homeland, which he left years before after a personal tragedy, and investigating an increasingly wide-ranging mystery at the behest of his childhood friend, King Phil. (Yes, he’s the actual king, and his name is Phil.)
The tale is too complex to discuss in a brief, spoiler-free review. (Its influences appear to include hard-boiled detective stories and low-fantasy fare, such as Simon R. Green’s tales of Hawk and Fisher.) However, on the side of its strengths are the author’s natural wit and storytelling ability; his gift for the creation of memorable minor characters; and the lightly — but effectively — described setting reminiscent of a medieval civilization in the Mississippi delta. (The author grew up in western Tennessee.) And its greatest strength is the (apparent) ease with which the author weaves the numerous plot-threads into an intellectually and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
On the side of its weaknesses are some overly neat coincidences (seen mostly in hindsight) and the use of unoriginal profanities, anachronisms, and real-world names (which often had the effect of an otherwise-excellent actor repeatedly pausing to wink at the audience). (Some oddities in the setting: matches, nametags for tavern waitresses, and parking tickets for horses.) Happily, these didn’t intrude at the most poignant moments.
Overall, Mr. Bledsoe deserves cheers (and readers) for penning a fast-paced, enjoyable, satisfying tale. (And kudos to Night Shade Books for publishing it.) Recommended for mature fans of pulp mysteries and/or sword-and-sorcery (especially as a vacation or travel book). Four stars as bright as heisted jewels.