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Sword & Sorcery & the other S


by Kathe Todd, 2015

Bernadette Bouchard leaves her home in the farmlands of Auverne to seek adventure in the badlands of Iscandia in the first installment of Kathe Todd's Fireblood trilogy. Nothing much happens until page 22 when Bernadette and Staeven enter ancient ruins and encounter a walking mummy. Scary, huh? It should be, but here the undead horror is dispatched in the next paragraph.

Bernadette is given a magic map that lets her travel to any place she's been before. Isn't that helpful? A map like that also kicks the teeth out of any remaining vestige of reality and turns Sword & Sorcery into a fairy tale.

Eventually, after numerous side-tracking adventures and quests, Bernadette discovers a conspiracy involving rival cults and secret societies... and a prophecy about the End of the World. And only she has the power to cast the spell to stop it.

Sword & Sorcery tales usually take place in a world that's semi-realistic plus magic and monsters thrown in. Most are further removed from reality than, say, Robert E. Howard's gritty tales of Conan the Cimmerian. But Todd's book takes place in a world that is, if not actually historical (there are three moons), at least has familiar names that we can relate to known history. Auverne clearly seems based on the medieval province of Auvergne in France, and Iscandia is Scandanavia. However, in this case, those two regions butt up against one another. Both are part of a Reman Empire (presumably founded by Remus, not Romulus), and marauded by Norsemen.

Also inhabiting this world are cat-people and elves. There's also big rats, gigantic spiders, undead thingies, and dragons. And... robots.

Todd has a talent and familiarity for this sort of fantastic world with such strange creatures in it. She goes at her subject with gusto. The language she employs to bring us there, while not eloquent, is functional and the reader usually has a clear idea of what's intended. The dialog is good—though there could be more of it in places.

I do have a few criticisms.

Technical: Bernadette makes armor from buckskin. I suppose one could, but it would be poor armor. Buckskin is soft and pliant, and not likely to deflect a sword's blade. Boiled cowhide's the thing for that.

Continuity: We are told, “Nobody had seen a living dragon in millennia” and they've all died out. A day later, a dragon shows up on the road and no one is terribly surprised.

Convenience: Bernadette must be seriously hot, as people are always giving her things for next to nothing, like the teleportation map. For delivering a message, traditionally rewarded with a warm meal and a few gold coins, she's given a suit of plate armor. Later, she's handed the keys to a nudist resort and told she owns the place. Bernadette, constantly getting through monsters and bandits with less inconvenience than my daily commute, does not make her a cool heroine. It makes a reader resent her. She never does anything clever and she doesn't have to—everything she wants is dropped in her lap. Once or twice she and her companions are ambushed or wounded, but they conveniently have the spells to heal themselves as if nothing happened. Bernadette is a deadly warrioress, a master blacksmith, a powerful spell caster, a voracious sexpot, and she just happens to be a talented locksmith—making her the Wesley Crusher of High Fantasy.

This hottie swings a broadsword, hammers an anvil at the blacksmith's, and digs for ore with a pickaxe. Since Bernadette is described as beautiful, guys in this world must dig chicks that are seriously ripped in the upper body.

Believability: When the earl commands Bernadette to seek out the elders for their advice, she takes time to have sex, practice blacksmithing, learn enchantments, and have more sex. The girl doesn't have a deep sense of urgency.

Action: Todd often rushes through—or over—action scenes. Since action scenes are the whole reason we read Sword & Sorcery, they need to be described in glorious and energetic detail, not glossed over and forgotten. We're told about things that happen but we don't get a chance to feel them.

Other times, the action is better described, like the first battle with a dragon or the fight with the Overlord. And the battle with the chymera has some clever twists, though it still could be expanded better. Certainly, the sex scenes receive much more attention. In fact, the many sex scenes are the best parts of the book, filled with explicit detail and passionate description, often building to a delightful climax. Bernadette takes on all comers, even two at a time.

But outside of the sex, the book often reads like a list of events. Information is often tossed out as it is needed with no foreshadowing and no mystery. For example, in the scene where Bernadette learns that she is one of the Fireblood, nothing up to that moment hints of her nonhuman nature. Nor is she left with a mystery to solve, perhaps by seeking out soothsayers or high priests who might know about these things. Nope, the ordinary guy standing next to her just happens to know the whole story.

At 407 pages, a lot is asked of the reader. Those who like lots of sexual action, magic made commonplace, and glossed-over swordplay, will find things to enjoy here. But if you like realistic action and you want the supernatural to be scary, you might feel let down.

While a potentially interesting story, “Destiny of the Fireblood” falls short of that potential. Following a sexy heroine on an epic quest through a land fraught with peril is a great premise for a book. We just need to feel some of that peril.

3 stars.

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