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The Blackhart Blades cover

The Blackhart Blades by David Gullen

(Newcon Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is a whimsical slice of fantasy involving the usual suspects: a gang of good-hearted mercenaries, known as Blackhart’s Blades, are taking home the heart of their former leader, when, in need of money, they decide to take on one more job while crossing a remote mountain kingdom. The King of Zangomar having just died, the crown has passed to his daughter, Queen, formerly Princess, Zaphron. However, as the Steward Sieur Bon Banacort explains, in between reciting his own bad poetry, Zaphron rushed to her rooms at the top of one of the castle’s towers the day after her father’s death and hasn’t been seen since. That very same night, the kingdom’s Treasury was emptied and the General of its army, so-called ‘Black’ Talahan, retreated to Hardknot Keep, where he is currently holed up, refusing to come out. The Blades’ mission, should they choose to accept it, is to kill Talahan, return the gold to the Treasury and persuade Queen Zaphron to show herself, although Banacort doesn’t seem that bothered about that last bit. A further pinch of spice is added to the stew by the threat that Zangomar faces from Veng the Usurper whose army is massing on the border. And, it turns out, Hardknot Keep occupies the ‘pinch-point’ at the mouth of the valley which offers the only passable route for such an army to march into the kingdom.

To say the Blades are a motley crew would be to abuse the term, featuring as they do Irion the Cold (‘cold hands, colder heart’), Mace, whose name pretty much says all you need to know, Little Evelyn, who came through a portal from some strange land where they serve ‘good coffee and cheap chocolate’, Brian the Knifewife, able to whip up a fabulous meal out of nothing-adjacent and Quicksilver, who sports a intricately engraved leg made of brass and bronze and which enables him to literally leap a tall building in one bound, but at a terrible cost each time. Joined by ‘Bobbins’, a foundling (of course) from the castle kitchens eager to make a new life for himself, the band of brothers/sisters/whatevers quickly come to realise that Banacort hasn’t quite told them the full story. Filling in the gaps and working out what’s really going on and, crucially, who to trust, then takes up much of the rest of the narrative.

Along the way we get some strong bonding between characters, as well as shifting of allegiances, plus a good dose of magic, both effective and misfiring, all wrapped up with a big bloody battle to yield a satisfying conclusion. There is also a significant loss to set against the Blades’ success of course, but in the end, they walk off into the mountains, honour intact and reputation enhanced, albeit with a changed line-up.

The author clearly had a fun time writing this and it is indeed very readable, although Brian the Knifewife’s amusing names for the victuals he cooked up became less so as the tale went on (from “clobbers, steeped in argent belhumes” to “twissany felpules sans oingles” a.k.a. chocolate mousse…!). The prep for the explanation about what actually happened to Queen Zaphron is also nicely laid out and adroitly handled, even if getting there does involve, sadly, an exploding goat(!). Overall, it all works effectively as a novella: as a short story, there wouldn’t be space enough to both hold all the various characters as anything other than cardboard cut-outs and at the same time to set the mechanism in motion that takes us to the ‘big reveal’; but there perhaps isn’t quite enough substance here to sustain a complete novel, although I could easily see it working as an episode in a longer and broader narrative.

Review from BSFA Review 22 - Download your copy here.


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