Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn’t hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.
So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.
Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.
The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.
Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and… erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?
Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).
The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.
This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars.
Nathan has reviewed this too: read his opinion here.