The Devil’s Blade – Mark Alder

Fierce, blade-wielding women? Deals with the devil? Opulent French-set novels? Now if only this was set in the Middle Ages instead of the seventeenth century it would tick all of my boxes!

The Devil’s Blade was on my most anticipated list for April and I actually read this just as it was released – and somehow forgot to review it! One of those books that I was convinced I had already written about until I checked my list, so off to the review machine I go. Many thanks to Will O’Mullane from Gollancz for sending me a review copy!

RELEASE DATE: 02/04/20

STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

SUMMARY: A group of men tried to sacrifice Julie in a ritual. However, things did not go as planned, and instead, young Julie ended up making a deal with the devil in order to take her revenge.

Today, she is famous as Julie d’Aubigny, opera singer, duelist, raging bisexual and woman who flaunted all convention of her time. But in this story, all she wants is to kill the men who tried to kill her, and fulfill the terms of her own deal with the devil.

OPINIONS: The devil is a woman! Or at least she presents herself as such in The Devil’s Blade which is a deliciously refreshing turn of events and one of my favourite twists. Cunning, deceptive and entirely devoid of emotion, Alder’s devil is not the dark and twisted creature of popular imagination, but an elegant and nuanced antagonist, fighting her battles with intelligence. I loved every bit of her scences.

The book is full of similarly surprising characters. Standing out, apart from Julie, are Monsieur, the King of France’s brother (Philippe, the Duke of Orléans), who prefers to dress as a woman, and Charlotte-Marie, Julie’s aristocratic lover, whom she meets while trying to enact her revenge on one of the men who tried to kill her. While the book is excellently researched in terms of historical detail, it is never overloaded with it, and uses that background as a playground for the breaking of gender-based stereotypes – there is a wonderful scene where Julie is in danger of being executed due to having broken dueling law. However, as the law states that men are prohibited from dueling, she ends up being set free on the technicality that she is, indeed, a woman wearing men’s clothes. While that is of course not historically accurate, it makes for great storytelling, which I believe is the most crucial quality of a novel. [EDIT: The author has just informed me that historical Julie has indeed been let off dueling charges for being a woman, so there goes history surprising me!]

The Devil’s Blade is smart, seductive and a treat of a novel. I wish these kinds of stories centering little-known historical women and giving them grand narratives were more common! Another aspect of the novel I thoroughly enjoyed was its framing in the format of a play in acts and scenes, with scene descriptions. This worked exceedingly well, especially given Julie’s operatic aspirations, and added an extra layer to the story. For those familiar with the classical three-act structure it adds expectations and anticipation about the coming scenes, which for me personally made the reading all the more delicious.

However, I need to end my review on bad news: while The Devil’s Blade very much reads like the first book in a series and ends on an epilogue that to me reads as “TO BE CONTINUED…”, Mark Alder has stated that, as of now, there are no plans for sequels. This leaves the story somewhat unfinished, and I do hope that there will eventually be a continuation.

If you are intrigued, add The Devil’s Blade on Goodreads, or order yourself a copy from Hive!

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