Black Blade Blues

by J.A. Pitts

Cover image

Series: Sarah Beauhall #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2010
ISBN: 0-7653-2793-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 398

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Sarah Beauhall is a blacksmith in training, an apprentice to another female smith who mostly works on shoeing horses. That's a part-time day job; her night job is as a props manager for a low-budget movie. Her free time is spent mostly with friends in a a medieval re-enactment group. She's also about to become, as the reader may predict, the heroine in an urban fantasy of the hidden sub-type, where mythological creatures share the world with us but are unknown to most people.

As a general plot synopsis, this fills bookshelves at the moment, albeit with the minor twist that blacksmith is an unusual occupation for the heroine (private detective of some variety is more common). But Pitts departs from the formula in two surprising and effective ways that turn this book into something apart from the typical urban fantasy novel.

The first is that he picks a different, and better fleshed-out, mythological background. The fantasy element here is Norse mythology rather than vampires, werewolves, magic, or demons. And, in a particularly nice twist, dragons (who can take human form) play the role of elder vampires in Pitts's world, with servants and dominance over territories. Given that dragons are much more interesting than vampires to me, I wholeheartedly welcome this change. Norse mythology also has a great deal of largely untapped potential and a comprehensive system of alliances and roles to draw on, and it's always easier to do satisfying world-building when you have an existing foundation to build on. This isn't American Gods, and Pitts isn't Gaiman, but it's more satisfying than average.

The second, and most significant, difference is that Sarah is a lesbian, and one dealing with baggage from an alienated but nastily conservative family who installed a lot of self-loathing. Her girlfriend (who's a bard in the medieval re-enactment group) is out and openly comfortable with who she is. Sarah isn't; she's not exactly hiding, but she's far from comfortable. And their relationship and Sarah's struggles with maintaining such a relationship and dealing with her own emotions is the heart of this book. The fantasy plot line seems almost incidental.

Sarah isn't the first urban fantasy heroine who spends most of her time struggling with romantic relationships, but she's the first I've read who's not heterosexual and one of the few whose relationships don't seem to be mostly fantasy fulfillment and erotic material for the reader. (And despite the author being male, that is definitely not what's going on here.) While there's a bit of sex in the book, it's only in the context of the larger relationship, and that relationship is realistically painful at times and realistically touching at other times. Sarah has to make hard decisions and fight herself, and she's doing it over real issues with considerable real-life resonance rather than having made-up relationship problems provide an excuse for inevitable make-up sex.

That makes this book rather unusual in urban fantasy. I think it's a better relationship novel than some written explicitly in that genre, and found it worth reading just for that plot line. But the fantasy part often feels like it's running in parallel without much intersection, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Pitts does try to tie it together, both in world effects and with the effects on Sarah's emotions, but throughout the book it felt like two stories told at the same time. On one hand, this makes perfect sense; why shouldn't a lesbian heroine have to balance her romantic life and her fantasy problems like any heterosexual urban fantasy heroine? On the other hand, in a novel I expect the various plot threads to come together more thoroughly than they do here, where the links mostly run through Sarah's emotions and through some physical peril.

The storytelling here is quite good for a first novel. Pitts has a good grasp of pacing that pulled me into both stories, the characters have satisfying emotional depth, and he avoids most of the stupidities of romantic conflict. Sarah's problems are mostly inability to control stubbornly dark and destructive emotion and to meet Katie on the terms Katie wants from her, which is refreshingly realistic compared to the usual fare of dreadful communication and farcical misunderstanding. There are some problems, mostly in the extended (to the point of boredom) fight sequences near the end of the book that felt like movie special effects patched into the book, but I found them relatively minor. I think the biggest problem is that Sarah mostly gets yanked around in the fantasy plot line and rarely gets to make important decisions. Hopefully the next book will give her a chance to get ahead of events.

This is a solid first novel with surprisingly good handling of a lesbian relationship and a much better (and more mature, in the non-erotic sense) handling of romance than nearly all urban fantasy. Recommended; I'll be buying the next book in the series.

Followed by Honeyed Words.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-01-24

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