Due to my absolutely bonkers (and entirely self-inflicted) work schedule over at CriminalElement.com, I feel like I’ve had to dial back a lot on my professional obligations w/r/t books over here, but you’d best believe that when the chance to join the book tour for J. L. Worrad’s latest book came up, I jumped on it! Pennyblade was one of my favorite books of last year (note to self: go nominate it for a Hugo once the Chengdu website starts working) and I was super ready to read more set in that universe.
So, the bad: Kyra isn’t in this book. As far as I can tell, no one from Pennyblade appears in The Keep Within (except for maybe the gross country priest?) but I am also notoriously bad with names and details.
But the good? Oh, there is so much good!
The world depicted in TKW is the same as Pennyblade’s, tho I couldn’t tell you how far from that era it may or may not be. My grasp of real world history also tends to be shaky, but TKW feels very Tudor, if not outright Elizabethan. One of our four viewpoint characters is Sir Harrance “Harry” Larksdale, one of the reigning King Ean’s many bastard siblings. Unlike his brothers, he’s never taken to the study of the blade, preferring instead the stage. As the proprietor of The Wreath, the foremost theater in Becken, he’s a known dandy who’s given free access to the royal seat of Becken Keep, where the king and his court reside.
In the keep, the king’s First-Queen, Carmotta Il’Lunadella, is scheming. She knows that the heavily pregnant Third-Queen Emmabelle is plotting against her, but isn’t quite sure how. Chafing at the bonds that constrain her due to her sex, Carmotta plans out her intrigues even as rumors of coup swirl throughout the court.
Meanwhile, Mother Fwych is escorting precious cargo from the Spine Mountains when she’s beset by a figure out of myth: the dreaded Red Marie. Robbed of her powers, Fwych must venture far from the safety of her homelands to ensure that the horrors beneath the keep are not unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. But how is she to do that when she is weakened, friendless and viewed with suspicion as a witch by the flatlanders of Becken?
Finally, Red Marie herself haunts the city in her own viewpoint chapters of blood and madness. Is she an unstoppable killing machine or is there more to this fabled monster who culls as she pleases? After all, she’s only a mythical figure whose ritual slaughter of Dickie o’ the Green is a metaphor for the year’s renewal… isn’t she?
Told over the course of nine days, TKW draws our main characters into each other’s inescapable orbits as at least two of them fight to save the world. Often acting at cross-purposes, our four viewpoint characters engage in a deadly quadrille set to a tempo beaten out by the hidden, cursed keep lurking in the dark beneath the royal seat.
This book was so mesmerizing, I could barely stop reading it to go do real life things! Filled with magic, intrigue and brutality, this highly original successor to Pennyblade wasn’t quite as moving — it’s less about the savagery of love, to begin with — but it was wonderful in its insistence that everyone can try to do the right thing, no matter how powerless we feel. Good people can falter and squabble and agree to disagree, but kindness and patience and perhaps even forgiveness can go a long way towards making things right. Playing to our own strengths and refusing to give in to despair will win the day more assuredly than any blade or royal dictate.
And here’s the thing: most of Mr Worrad’s characters are exceptionally terrible people. Harry and Carmotta, in particular, do not get along, and for very good reason. They’re both awful — and it’s of no comfort to Carmotta that she is usually right but is just as often thwarted — but they’re working towards being better. Even the main villains are shown to be people in so much pain that they feel they have no choice but to inflict that pain on others. I will say that the only person who I didn’t think got what they deserved was The Explainer.
If you’re looking for a fantasy novel that’s heavy on Elizabethan intrigue — not a subgenre that is at all easy to find — or at the very least has a different perspective on the usual Renaissance European shibboleths, with a healthy dose of sex-positivity and representation, then this is the book for you. Heck, if you just want to read something entertaining and smart, full of heart and humor, then this is definitely the book for you. Tho it isn’t quite as debauched as its predecessor, TKW is a really great follow-up to Pennyblade, and I’m so glad I was able to squish it into my schedule. Thought-provoking, profane and laugh out loud funny in turn, this is another triumph for Mr Worrad, who is fast becoming one of my favorite fantasy authors.
But don’t just take my word for it! Titan Books is giving away copies, so you can find out how awesome this book and how talented Mr Worrad is for yourself. Fill out this form for a chance to win a copy of this excellent novel.
Updated April 25 2023: Congratulations to Katie S for winning a copy of The Keep Within! Your copy is on its way to you.
The Keep Within by J. L. Worrad was published March 28 2023 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including