Release Date: March 15, 2022
Publisher: Titan Books
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)
Pennyblade is a new standalone novel from author and screenplay writer J.L. Worrad. This is a low fantasy, a story definitively set in a world that is not our own but one with little of the intense, formal magic systems so often found in the genre. Instead, what we have is a plot driven by politics, old families vying for power, and whispers of an old, terrifying being that may be all too real.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of Kyra Cal’Andra, a highblood commrach. Though she is part of an ancient race of elfin beings, she is now living among common humans, working as a pennyblade. Any job that needs a mercenary or sellsword is one she’ll take on. However, when the past Kyra is desperately running from and the job she finds herself on meet, she has no choice but to plunge ahead, despite the consequences and how badly she wishes to keep running from her past.
Several major themes and questions run throughout this work. Following your heart and soul may not always align with what is expected of you from your family, religion, or culture, something which can be further impacted by status. How do you reconcile these facts? How do you move on—or not move on—from a painful past? How do two people of extremely different religions learn to respect those differences and one another?
This novel is a tightrope walk of storytelling that works extraordinarily well and mechanics which sometimes inadvertently get in the story’s own way. The story is furiously fast-paced, making the reading experience fly by. Dialogue is snappy, filled with quips, and is able to build tension within a scene after only a single line or two of dialogue—quite a feat to be sure. Yet a clear picture of the world is never quite painted, as descriptions are on the rarer side. The long history of the commrach’s, the complicated social hierarchy, and the rich use of myths and long-past histories are never quite fleshed out, leaving readers without a broader understanding of Kyra’s world.
Both first- and second-person perspective are used here. Kyra is telling the story to “you,” Kyra’s former lover, a woman named Shen. This is a very clever use of second-person perspective. Readers are instantly drawn to the story, finding “themselves” within the tale. Not only that, but it sets up several interesting questions very early on. Who is Shen? Why are “we,” Shen, not present in the current action? Where are “we,” and what are “we” doing?
Yet as with so many aspects of this tale, this sometimes gets in the story’s own way. The Kyra telling the story in asides to Shen often reads as a wholly different person from the Kyra currently in the action. This does two things. First, it draws readers in further, making them desperately want to see how Kyra changes from the current one whose adventures are being read and the future Kyra telling her tale. This change in tone and characterization stands out starkly for one reason.
At the beginning of the novel, Kyra comes across as a sociopath at best and a psychopath at worst. Within the first few chapters, she’s left a companion to burn alive in a fire and outright murdered another. Answers or insights as to why Kyra might act like this are not told directly by her, despite the story being in first-person point of view. However, answers can be gleaned from within the myriad of chapters set about five years prior. These flashback chapters tell the entire tale of how Kyra came to be in this human country and her past with the mysterious Shen. Many questions initially raised within these first few chapters are answered here, including why Kyra acts in such a wholly unfathomable manner. However, it is unlikely that readers will stick around long enough to make these discoveries.
Pennyblade’s greatest fault is that it has the tendency to, quite unfortunately, get in its own way. Not having the knowledge of these flashbacks makes Kyra’s actions seem utterly excessive and frame her as something of a spoiled, self-centered sociopath instead of someone who is incredibly broken and knows she’s making poor decisions. Having chapters shift from the current timeline to events of five years prior after nearly every chapter also changes pacing, tense, and tone on a dime in certain sections. Natural climaxes and purposeful quieter moments that let the reader catch their breath don’t always align exactly because of this.
That isn’t to say this isn’t a well-crafted tale, as there is much here fantasy fans will love, particularly those who prefer grimdark stories or tales of mercenaries. It is simply one that desperately wanted more room to breathe. The novel begs to be a duology, one where the flashback section is book one and the rest of the tale is book two. This would allow for the fascinating but infrequently fleshed-out world of the commrach to beautifully come to life. So much promise lies in this world—one rife with bloody politics but also one with a society very open to all sexualities. The commrach have a vibrant culture, a rich history, can trace their roots back into the far past, yet readers get infuriatingly tiny glimpses into these.
An edge-of-your-seat tale of a mercenary lies at the heart of Pennyblade, one that genuinely held me captivated, as I read the book in a single sitting. Over three hundred pages of story lead to one hell of an ending too. Dialogue is top-notch, characters are diverse, and fans of grimdark may find a favorite new read here.