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Fantasy Review: ‘The Swordsman’s Oath’ by Juliet E. McKenna

Not long ago I reviewed Juliet McKenna’s debut novel, ‘The Thief’s Gamble,’ a good fourteen years after its publication.  An enjoyable book with a strong lead in Livak, I caused a bit of a discussion about tropes when I suggested that the book hit quite a few of the genre’s big ones.  The author herself pointed out that what was once fresh may now be seen as a trope.  Perhaps lost in the discussion was the fact that I really raced through ‘The Thief’s Gamble,” enjoying the book throughout.  As would be expected, I eagerly dove into the second book of the series.

“The Thief’s Gamble” ended with a narrow escape from some yellow haired island baddies by Livak and her band, including the swordsman Ryshad, who takes over the first person point of view in “The Swordsman’s Oath.”  Like the first book, there is also third person narrative based around other characters, and various historical letters that help flesh out the world’s history.  The story follows Ryshad, working with the wizards of the land, tracking down artifacts that could help explain the Elietimm’s (yellow hair baddies) unknown and devastating magical abilities. Along the way he reunites, and is taken away from, Livak and the complicated relationship they share.

There are several interesting things happening in this story.  Flashbacks can be hit or miss but I feel McKenna handled them very well.  They were introduced gradually and in the early going I didn’t even realized I was looking into the past.  Slowly but surely they were tied into Ryshad’s story until they were so intertwined as to be one story.  Another unique story line involved a new culture; polygamist but misunderstood, with the wives’ being responsible for all trade and business.  And while Livak is no longer the main point of view, she is still an active character in this book, and is still a joy to read about.

So did this book live up to my expectations?  Yes, as much as I enjoyed the first book of the series I feel this one was superior in many ways.  I did miss the voice of Livak and found her more compelling of a main character than Ryshad; but when combined with secondary character of Temar (a voice from the past) he gets more interesting.  The setting for this one was much more unique and dare I say, less trope filled.  The characters have grown past their trope beginnings; making Livak much more than a thief, Shiv shows he is not just a mage, etc.  The overall problem the protagonists and his group face is highly entertaining, racing the Elietimm’s to discover a lost society and its secrets, and fighting them for them when needed.  Obviously war is coming, and while it doesn’t come to head, the first battles are fought.

While I didn’t enjoy Ryshad as much as Livak as a protagonist, he is still and interesting character.  He takes his responsibilities serious, and can’t quite shake that something is influencing his thoughts when he thinks otherwise.  McKenna shows strength in real relationships again; while Livak and Ryshad are becoming more typical love interests, Temar and a women named Guinalle have a much more complicated relationship that doesn’t follow the “one true love” plot line.

Once again I felt the author went on a long, semi confusing, tangent.  Ryshad is taken as a slave to the polygamist culture, and I still can’t quite figure out why or what it added.  Unlike the search for a wizard in the first book I found this diversion interesting; the new culture he had to learn was interesting to be sure, but it didn’t seem to add anything special to Ryshad’s character and the circumstances behind his travels confused a bit.

But outside of that minor complaint, I felt the book was an improvement throughout.  The miscellaneous correspondences to start the chapter added so much to the story, the pace was quick, and the characters continued to be a strong point of the series.  Still love it, still plan on reading the rest.

4 stars.

My thanks to Cheryl from Wizard’s Tower Press for the copy to review.

Books in the Series
The Thief’s Gamble
The Swordsman’s Oath

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Fantasy Review: ‘The Thief’s Gamble’ by Juliet E. McKenna

Sometimes a generic fantasy yarn is just what you need.  I love books that try something new, push the limits of the genre, and make me think.  But sometimes a quick little romp is ok too, right?  Sure it is, and when in that mood there is nothing wrong with ‘The Thief’s Gamble.’  It hits all the nice fantasy tropes, and doesn’t see any reason to bend them, break them, or subvert them.  You got your talented thief with a good heart, benevolent wizards, a mysterious stranger in the bar, ancient lost magic along with the commonly used elemental magic, and a whole island of baddies to overcome.

So the story starts.  The Archmage is searching for artifacts from the good old days to better understand lost magics.  To do so he has send several groups out to collect these.  Our heroine, Livak, is coerced into working with one of these groups as they need her thieving skills to get a piece that has been hard to get.  No hard feelings though, despite being coerced she is going to be paid well by mage Shiv and his band.  After some early shenanigans the plot gets going when it is discovered another group is after the same artifacts.  This race of yellow haired jerks is using unknown magic and horrible brutality to get their way.
I liked quite a bit about this book.  Livak is a genuinely interesting character, fairly resourceful within her means, very smart, sometimes witty.  Her chapters are written in the first person, whereas chapters dealing with other characters are not.  She is actually a pretty adult character as well, ok with her sexuality though it is never her defining feature.  She has a couple ‘adult’ relationships with various degrees of attachments, like real people do!  Ryshad, the mysterious stranger, is quickly shown to be loyal to his employer and new friends.  While the various mages tend to run together in my mind, the Archmage and Shiv did stand out.  Shiv is a rare openly gay character in the fantasy genre, though it is only known through a few passing references.

The plotting was a strong point as well; fairly fast paced fairly focused.  There were only three or four threads to follow throughout the book, but they were all tied together by the end.  One small diversion to visit an old mage dragged on too long, but outside of that everything moved at a brisk pace.  While this was the first book of the series it could be read as a standalone; it ends with good conclusions for surviving characters.  Oh, ya there is an actual sense of danger, not everyone will survive the journey.  While never the focus, the violence factor really ramped up in the last twenty percent of the book. 

Only a few complaints here.  I was fine with the generic feel of it, but be aware that no new ground was broken here.  The history of the land was a bit jumbled, or at least it confused me.  Some things I thought were part of ancient history instead turned out to be only a few generations old.  Lastly the magic was a bit inconsistent, sometimes incredibly powerful, others fairly limited.

3 and a half stars.

PS.  Not related to the actual book, but whoever wrote the excerpt on the back of the paperback copy (which also appears on Goodreads) didn’t even attempt to read the book.  He/she actually mixed up some of Livak’s plot line with a separate minor character.  And the ‘teaser quote;’ ‘Never bet against a wizard, you might win,’ has zero to do with the story either.  Just bad packaging.   

Books in the Series
The Thief’s Gamble
The Swordsman’s Oath

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