Pennyblade by J. L. Worrad

Oh my heart. I don’t know how a book as bawdy and savage as Pennyblade managed to make me cry at the beautiful heartbreak of the final chapters but oh, how it did and how I did. This is not a book that everyone will like (see: bawdy and savage) but if the idea of fantasy novels that hew closer to a dirty reality than to a sanitized idyll appeals to you, then you’ll likely adore this book as much as I do.

Kyra Cal’Arda is a commrach (i.e. elf) in exile in human lands. Once a spoiled member of the upwardly mobile elven nobility, whose main concerns were protecting her beloved twin brother while fostering her romance with the outcast Shen (to whom most of the novel is addressed,) she now spends her days wielding her blade in service to the highest bidder, hence the title. When a job goes awry and she’s forced to go on the run, before being essentially press ganged by the human church, all the secrets of her past come spilling out. But what have they to do with the mission that the church wants her to complete, under the supervision of the infuriating Sister Perfecti Benedetta, and why does the church need her in particular to achieve their goals? And what’s the deal with the creepy rope-masked humans who keep getting in her way? Surely, they can’t actually be worshipping the devil, which everyone who isn’t a superstitious rube (according to Kyra, anyway) knows doesn’t exist?

This sex-positive, queer-affirming European-Middle-Ages-inspired-fantasy is such a breath of fresh air in a genre that often takes itself Very Seriously but doesn’t actually have much depth behind its portentous facade. Pennyblade’s Kyra, otoh, is a cheerful shit with hidden, meaningful layers, whose rakish sociopathy is the natural adaptation to her upbringing and the betrayals she’s endured. The subversion of elves as being basically Nazis is both hilarious and surprisingly thoughtful: not in the form of inspiring any sympathy for fascists, but in showing how that kind of upbringing brutalizes you, even if it brings apparent advantages. Not that the humans in this book are much better, ofc, obsessed as they are with an invisible God who works through a totalitarian church. Both types of society, the book tells us, are worth subverting, but only in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our own basic decency by treating others as less than real people.

And that was why the climax of this book — so beautifully constructed in the manner of the best fair play mysteries — was such a heartbreaker. There are some things you can’t fix through force of will and ruthlessness alone. Where the spoiled Kyra or even the hunted Kyra of the first hundred pages or so might have sympathized with the devil, the Kyra who has been shown her blind spots and who has finally begun to understand empathy and compromise learns how to make less selfish choices. She’s not perfect by any means, but she — as well as the other members of her ragtag crew — is capable of growth, and I loved that about her.

There were a few pacing issues that I thought could have been handled better in the book (the scene on the Darrad balcony, for example, deserved more interiority, IMO) but overall I found this a spectacularly original fantasy novel, and one of my favorite books of the year so far. You can check out the opinions of other bloggers via the book tour banner above!

Pennyblade by J. L. Worrad will be published March 29 2022 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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