When you are a reviewer and an avid reader as I am, you always end up with a mountain of books that grows week by week. And you always have an urge to read even more books because you find something that interests you and that you think could be a fun read. This is one of the reasons why I started my “25 Series To Read In ….” reading challenges (2013, 2014), because I wanted to make a dent in that reading pile. Or try to. For this year’s challenge, one of the series I picked is J. A. Pitts’ urban fantasy trilogy Sarah Beauhall, which has some of the most awesome covers I’ve seen.
The first novel in the series, Black Blade Blues, does a great job of introducing the character and setting up the slice of the world that Pitts has created. It is full of some great characters, Norse mythology, runes, dragons, magic, and more. Quite a potent combination. The Norse mythology connection was one of the other reasons why I wanted to read this series, and the reality has borne out the expectations, because Black Blade Blues was as fantastic a read as I was hoping for. Great story, great characters, great twists.
First off, I’ll start by saying that I totally agree with Kay Kenyon’s summation of the novel. Black Blade Blues is indeed quite a hip and modern take on the typical urban fantasy tropes, and we do have a sexy blacksmith as a protagonist, someone who is awesome and totally kickass and loves her Doc Martens. Honestly, what more could you want. In the last couple years, I’ve read a fair amount of urban fantasy novels, and few of them have made as much of a mark on me as Black Blade Blues did. I’d count it right alongside Jaye Wells’ Red-headed Stepchild (review) and Dirty Magic (which I just finished the other day) and Amanda Carlson’s Jessica McClain series (review of book 1, book 2) as some of the best urban fantasy I’ve read, especially those featuring female protagonists. Sarah Beauhall is the kind of hero I want to read more of in this genre, someone who has real depth to her, who has good dialogue, has a realistic relationship with the people around her, and who is not all lovey-dovey sex-crazy.
The gist of the novel is that we have Sarah Beauhall as a blacksmith working at a forge owned by another blacksmith, also a woman. To help with the bills, Sarah also helps out a local movie director as a prop manager, providing him with swords, hammers etc as the need may be, among other things. After a sword breaks during a movie shoot, and Sarah reforges it to save time instead of making a new one, things start to go out of whack. One of the extras on the movie claims to be a dwarf from Norse legends and says that the sword Sarah has reforged is a fabled Norse sword of antiquity and that she now has a destiny to slay a dragon, who sunlights as an investment banker. Its a pretty fun setup and watching the entire story play out is quite rewarding.
While the Norse connections are never prolific in this story, there is indeed a good setup here involving some of the gods, and the dwarves and indeed the swords themselves. Pitts seeds the story with a lot of breadcrumbs and hidden gems that form the overall narrative and give some hints as to what may happen by the end of it. He keeps the story moving ahead, never looking back, never going back to dwell on things that are already wrapped up.
More than that though, while Sarah herself is a great protagonist, her supporting cast is no less real. One thing that I didn’t mention above, and that is a key component of Sarah’s character and her motivations for some of the things that she does, is that Sarah is a lesbian. She is attracted to other women, and she is in a relationship with another woman. Katie has been Sarah’s best friend since their college days, and now they live together. But, where Katie is openly gay and comfortable with her sexual identity, Sarah is not. She was raised by an abusive father who was also a religious fanatic and thus she prefers to keep her relationship with Katie out of the public eye. Public displays of affection are just not for her. And this is one of the challenges that Sarah has to overcome. She has to learn how to fully break out of her shell and be comfortable with who she is, especially once Katie tells her that she loves her. Big moment there.
Katie herself is a wonderful character that I wanted to see more of in the novel. Given the way that the story progresses, we don’t see all that much of her, but she does form an important and crucial element of Sarah’s life. And its not just the two of them in that situation. We also have another lesbian couple in the novel who, in contrast to Sarah and Katie, are rock-solid in their relationship and publicly comfortable with their sexual identity. The last time I read a novel with so many gay characters was… never. No caricatures, no negative or dismissive portrayals. Pitts treats all four of these ladies with respect and as real characters and people, which is as it should be.
Sarah’s boss, Katie’s brother and sister-in-law, the members of the live action roleplay group that Sarah and Katie are part of, the crew of the movie where Sarah helps out, and every other character, including the three villains, they all have a depth to themselves. At no point did I feel like any character was there just for the hell of it. Each character has an important part in the overall story and each progresses it in his or her own way.
And most of all, I loved the villains in this novel. They are dragons of long-standing, with our main villain having come from one of the European lineages some time back, and there is a fantastic amount of politicking and power-playing among the three villains as we see them in this novel. Which Pitts focuses a lot on the good guys and girls, he doesn’t ignore the bad ones either. Over the course of the novel, all three of them develop almost as much as the good guys and girls do. Which is quite rewarding to see in a novel, any novel really. It helps to make the novel more complete if the villains are not caricatures and they have real motivations that lead and guide them to do what they do.
Plus, there are a hell of a lot of twists in the story which keep things really interesting. Honestly, sometimes they can feel a bit much, but Pitts at least executes them well enough that it doesn’t matter in the end. Natural twists, awesome action, great characterisation, everything can be found here in Black Blade Blues.
All I can really say is that I enjoyed this novel a hell of a lot. I managed to finish it in a single day, on account of traveling a lot on that particular day, and one of the reasons I managed to do that is because I found it to be a hell of a good read. It kept me interested all the way through, and every few pages it offered me something different. Gotta love a novel like that. Truly. I wasn’t expecting Black Blade Blues to be this good, so it is a great surprise. Now, if only I can finish the sequel like that, in a single day, when I get to it in a few weeks! Fingers crossed!