Book Review: Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

Ok, I’m a bit perplexed…

What is it about sexual hangups in more mature fantasy offerings these days? I’ve run across shame about homosexual feelings, marital infidelity, and spousal abuse in two recent novels from Robin Hobb (The Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven) and now I’ve hit the social and personal stigma of developing a lesbian relationship in J.A. Pitts’ debut fantasy novel – Black Blade Blues. I’d say it was just my imagination, but I don’t think so…

Anyway, Pitts’ novel is an urban fantasy set in the Northwest United States that centers on the life of Sarah Beauhall, a blacksmith by day and a movie props master by night with a love of medieval weapons and armor. As a collector of such forged materials, she has been known to prowl antique auctions offering swords, axes, knives, and such for sale and occasionally acquiring a piece for herself. One such piece is a beautiful black bladed sword.

When the sword is accidentally broken on the set of the latest movie Sarah is helping with, it begins a bizarre chain of events in her life. Offered help by an extra who claims to be a real live dwarf, Sarah is thrust into a world where dragons are real and magic exists. When she fixes the sword on her anvil, she becomes the central figure in a new cycle where myths and legends not only walk the Earth, but threaten the very lives of Sarah and her friends.

In recent years, beginning with Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods, the upcoming Thor movie from Marvel in 2011, and most recently with Jim Butcher‘s latest Dresden Files novel Changes, Norse gods such as Odin, Thor, Loki, and Sif have found their way into modern works of fantasy. And I have to admit that I absolutely love this trend. For far too long the gods of Asgard have remained dormant and it’s great to see them stalking the pages of fiction once more.

But back to the sexual revolution in modern fantasy for a moment… Sarah is estranged from her father, a devout believer in the Christian God and a misogynist who seems to believe that women should serve men and not get in their way. And she’s dealing with the new love she feels for her girlfriend Katie, a schoolteacher who knows who she is and what she wants – and that is Sarah. Sarah unfortunately isn’t so sure and struggles with feelings of shame brought on by her father’s intolerance for anything other than the union of a man and a woman…

I think I get it now that I’ve had time to consider it a bit. Finding yourself and your loves is a quest all of us is on throughout most of our lives. And weaving the storyline of self-discovery into the novel as Sarah goes from self-doubt about her relationship with Katie to somewhere nearing acceptance balances out the supernatural story elements surrounding the sword. It’s just interesting to see that these more modern relationships, unbounded by the “traditional” union of man and woman, are working their way into what I think of as mainstream fiction. Really it’s probably overdue.

Honestly, I was surprised to discover that this was a debut novel. The 400+ pages of Black Blade Blues went extremely quickly. As I learned more of how Pitts intertwined interpretations of Norse myths into a modern setting, it picked up speed and didn’t let me go. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Sarah Beauhall, Katie, and the rest of their friends as they deal with a world of dragons, dwarves, and magic. If you like urban fantasy and are looking for a female answer to Harry Dresden, be sure to check it out at your favorite bookstore!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Black Blade Blues from Barnes & Noble today!

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Book Review: Changes by Jim Butcher

Hi all!

Harry Dresden is one of my heroes. I’ve been reading about Jim Butcher‘s modern wizard since I found the first book Storm Front in the early 2000s. It’s a perfect mix of urban fantasy, adventure, and sarcasm. Yes, I said sarcasm. He’s willing to provide a wisecrack to the most powerful beings on the planet or the guy next door. I value that devil-may-care attitude.

This isn’t your traditional wizard. For one, he lives in modern day Chicago and works as a private investigator. Well, he used to when he had more time. Lately he’s been helping out in a war between the White Council of wizards and the Red Court of vampires that he might have started…

Ok, maybe I should start at the beginning. Harry Dresden is a wizard in every sense of the word. He casts spells, speaks with spirits and other supernatural beings, crosses into the realm of faerie, and hunts for monsters who seek to hurt innocent (and sometimes not-so innocent) people. He lives and works as a special private eye in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, Illinois. I say special, because it’s not often you see ads for a “Wizard for Hire” in the yellow pages.

Author Jim Butcher published the first novel of the “Dresden Files” – Storm Front – back in 2000. Since then he’s published eleven more novels set in the Dresden universe, all focused on his wizard/detective. Each has put Dresden and his friends in harms way more times than I can count and not everyone has come out unscathed or alive. Sometimes the things making noise in the darkness are out to get you and won’t stop until they succeed…

Harry Dresden has changed over time. He’s not quite the same hot-headed young wizard he was when he started. By the time Changes starts, he’s taken on an apprentice – Molly Carpenter, the daughter of his good friend Michael Carpenter who is a retired Knight of the Cross – and becoming a teacher has mellowed him out greatly.

Beyond that… Harry has a dog – Mouse, a Tibetan Mastiff who protects Harry as much as anyone can – and a cat – Mister, a large gray tomcat who (like most cats) has a serious attitude. Harry has a magical skull that contains the spirit of a former powerful wizard – “Bob” – who has a soft spot for romance novels. And Harry has a lot of good friends, among them Karrin Murphy, a police detective in the Chicago Police’s “Special Investigations” unit. SI handles the weird cases nobody wants to deal with but everyone wants dealt with quickly and quietly. Inevitably Harry gets involved somehow.

When Changes starts, Harry gets a phone call that literally changes his life. He’s told by his former girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez (one-time lover and reporter, now half-vampire), that he has a child and the child is in danger. In true Dresden form, Harry kind of goes off the deep end to save his daughter from the Red Court of vampires who would really like to see him dead.

I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone. It, like all Dresden novels, was one heck of a page turner. I devoured this book in about 8 hours spread out across two days and that’s fast even for me.

However… I will mention two things in case you’re a Dresden fan and haven’t picked this up yet. First of all, you get to meet Odin from Norse mythology. Suffice it to say that the scene in which that happens is one of my favorite of the entire book and made me think back to American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which I will now have to re-read. Second, you get to hear Mouse talk. Yes, it makes sense in the context of the story and made me laugh out loud.

If you like urban fantasy (fantasy fiction set in the modern world) and haven’t read any of the Dresden books, I would encourage you to start at Storm Front and work your way up to Changes. If you are already a Dresden fan, I would encourage you to read Changes if you haven’t already done so. This book was a blast and somehow Butcher continues to turn out amazing, entertaining stories in Dresden’s world. Next up will be Butcher’s Side Jobs short story and novella collection combining numerous Dresden short stories in one place, including a follow-up to Changes. Look for that to arrive in late October 2010!

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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