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Kelly (WebMage) McCullough's Broken Blade is one of those satisfying little page-turners that reminds us all that the backbone of genre fiction has always lain not among its heavily-hyped epics and bestsellers so much as its trusty mass market paperback midlist. McCullough's atmospheric little tale of betrayal and skullduggery is brisk, confident, intelligently conceived and suspenseful. Most commendably, it doesn't overstay its welcome by hundreds and hundreds of superfluous pages. If a solid and enjoyable weekend read is what you're after, you've come to the right place.

Broken Blade is the story of Aral Kingslayer, a grandiose nickname for a shadow of a man. Once he was a Blade, a temple assassin for the goddess Namara, stalking the enemies of decency and justice. His greatest achievement was taking out the ruthless tyrant Ashvik VI in his own chambers. But the goddess herself was subsequently murdered, her order obliterated, and her Blades hunted down almost to the last man. Now Aral — with his familiar Triss, a Shade who lives within Aral's own shadow — is a depressive alcoholic who haunts the taverns of Tien, ekeing out a living taking odd and often unsavory moonlight jobs as a shadow jack.

Aral is approached by Maylien, heiress of the house Marchon, with what at first seems a simple messenger job. He soon learns there's much more to it than that, and finds himself neck-deep in a violent conflict over succession, in which he'll discover more than a few shocking truths about his old order, and those he once called friends.

In a story of less than 300 pages, McCullough evokes a rich and textured setting of back alleys, rooftop hideouts, dank dungeons and urban magical grime. Call it fantanoir. These are all familiar tropes, of course, but we still love them because in the right hands, they rock the place. The symbiosis between the Blades and their familiars is intriguing, and the Shades are an inspired creation, lending unexpected flair to some action scenes. Triss, as a living shadow, is a pretty versatile critter — more than once Aral is able to escape a tight spot by using the creature as a sort of hang glider — but its powers can drain both of them very quickly. They snark at each other now and then, but it's a deeply bonded companionship. It would have been easy for Aral and Triss to have become no more than a knockoff of, say, Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos and Loiosh. But McCullough makes their friendship ring true, because it's obvious he cares about them.

I particularly admired how the expected love interest between Aral and Maylien doesn't follow quite the conventional path, as well as the moral conflicts Aral feels as he begins taking charge of his life and realizing what his new responsibilities mean. When serving Namara, taking a life was a simple matter of unthinkingly obeying orders, but now, when each decision is his own, Aral must consider consequences. "That was the problem with relying on gods instead of thinking for yourself. When you base your morality on what heaven tells you to do, heaven can always cut you off at the knees by changing its mind." That's a bit of wisdom I wish more people understood.

The narrative occasionally feels out of balance, as Maylien sometimes seems as much the protagonist as Aral. She has a goal she is moving towards (often with so much confidence and strength you wonder why she thought she needed Aral at all), while Aral has an unhappy past he is running from. Also, for someone supposedly an expert at stealth, Aral sure does get made a lot, sometimes by nothing more than an alert servant. That could be deliberate, though, indicating how much Aral's drinking has weakened his game. But in the end he does emerge a reasonably strong character, with a future that's still unsure, but no longer without purpose.

There is more about Aral's world, and his past, I want to know. I'd especially like to know more about the execution of Namara herself, as it seems to me that killing a goddess is a pretty big deal and I wonder how it was pulled off. But with as promising a start as this, McCullough's new series is looking like one sharp blade indeed.

Followed by Bared Blade.