Offer me queer dark fantasy and I will not be able to resist. I’m a simple Fab in that respect. And Pennyblade by J.L. Worrad is certainly dark, gritty and fast-paced, a true grimdark fantasy that will likely appeal to many readers who come to this because of those elements, even if it didn’t click for me.
Many thanks to Sarah at Titan Books for sending me an ARC. All opinions are my own as usual.
RELEASE DATE: 29/03/2022
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Exile. Mercenary. Lover. Monster. Pennyblade.
Kyra Cal’Adra has spent the last four years on the Main, living in exile from her people, her power and her past. A commrach, she’s welcome among the humans only for her rapierwork. They don’t care about her highblood, which of the gleaming towers she came from, nor that her family aspires to rule the Isle.
On the Main, superstitions and monsters are in every shadow, but Kyra is haunted by the ghost of Shen, the love of her life and lowblood servant she left behind. She survives by wit and blade alone in a land that would see her dead for who she is, for who she loves.
When her fellow pennyblades betray her, Kyra is forced to track the demon preying on the souls of the commoners. She must tear the masks off to see the true face of things, as the age-old conflict between the Main and the Isle threatens to erupt once more. (from Titan Books)
OPINIONS: Pennyblade is fast paced, and thus draws the reader in quickly. However, I didn’t feel like it lived up to the excitement it built up through the immersive and fast plotting – and I think, at least for me personally, that was largely connected to the narrative perspective. It felt like the focus was left on the action to such an extent that even though this is a queer fantasy and one in a world which is very much not queernormative, it is not something that really came through all that much while reading, and especially not on an emotional level. As a whole, the book felt like it was written through a very male gaze which made me bounce off the story constantly. This probably means that I am not the right reader for the book – I think someone who comes to Pennyblade from a more traditional grimdark background is less likely to struggle with the same issues I struggled with coming to it coming from a more queer, character-driven background.
And grimdark is the best way to describe this novel. In every regard, from the writing, to the world, to the characters. It is full of swearing, betrayal and general shittiness – I don’t think I can really remember anything positive happening throughout the story. And again, I can see this working a lot better for a lot of readers, but I do tend to want just a tad of positivity in my reading, some moments of tenderness. Pennyblade just felt a bit pointless in the end, as I just couldn’t get myself to care about bad things happening to unlikeable people. As you may be able to tell, the book kind of made me very grumpy because I somehow wanted it to be something it wasn’t. That’s on me more than anything.
So yeah, a book that I think will appeal to fans of dark, pacy stories with less focus on characters and relationships than action. It exudes what I’d describe as masculine energy despite being about lesbians and swords, which I feel says a lot about it. Not necessarily bad, but one where I’d rec checking out a sample to see if it meshes with you in terms of prose and focus.