Sky of Swords, by Dave Duncan

sky-of-swords-by-dave-duncan coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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The third novel in Dave Duncan’s “King’s Blades” setting, Sky of Swords is a story of intrigue, betrayal, fear and politics rife with narrow escapes, bribery, love and, of course, swords. This is an absolute must for readers of the Gilded Chain who then went on to read Lord of the Fire Lands. At the end of Lord of the Fire Lands, a drastic change in the history of Chivial and its monarch is related, a change that is finally explained in Sky of Swords.

This was part of my problem. I went into Sky of Swords knowing that either it would negate everything that happened in the tail end of the Gilded Chain, or it would have negate itself. I’m not going to say which happened, but I, personally, didn’t like the trick. I can’t say why Mr. Duncan chose this particular method. Perhaps he could only tell this story of ultimate sacrifice this way, but I felt strangely cheated. I knew that some part of what I had read was going to end up being a dream, or somebody was going to wake up in the proverbial shower and ignore what went before.

Now, my distaste for that particular technique aside, the book is a wonderful read. While the Princess Malinda is the main character, a group of young and disparate Blades surround her. There is a very Three Musketeers quality to the Blades, in that each has a specific strength and weakness. Together, they are far greater than the sum of their parts. As usual, Mr. Duncan has presented the reader with multi-dimensional characters, characters with whom we can sympathize and empathize.

Much as the Gilded Chain reminded me of A Man for All Seasons with swords, Sky of Swords reminds me of Lady Jane, a wonderful little movie from 1985 starring Helena Bonham Carter. Lady Jane is about a young claimant to the Tudor throne after the death of Edward VI–Lady Jane Grey–and her struggles as she is placed as an alternative to Mary Tudor. Princess Malinda in Sky of Swords has the same struggle against more politically and militarily astute opponents. She is a merging of Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. Her struggle is both external and internal, as she attempts to wrest the throne away from those unworthy of it and yet does not completely believe she deserves it.

While this book is also much more of a character drama and political intrigue than a swashbuckler, there is plenty of action, plenty of thrills and, since this is a “King’s Blades” novel, plenty of swordsmanship and camaraderie. Most of the action is on a small scale, but armies become involved, as they do in any play for power. Still, the novel never loses sight of its heroes. We are never dragged into the war, save how it affects Princess Malinda and her Blades.

I have raved previously about Mr. Duncan’s world-building, and I must again praise it here. This novel really transported me into Chivial. I could all but smell it. One feels, as one is reading, that one is in this world, and when the subway stop comes up, or one goes to supper, or however one is interrupted, there is a transition period in which one is uncertain of reality. I compare the feeling to waking out of a dream. There is that moment when reality is very unreal. It is a rare author who can cast such a spell.

If you have enjoyed the Gilded Chain or Lord of the Fire Lands, you will enjoy Sky of Swords. If you have read both of the first two novels, you will need to read this novel to understand the discrepancies. If you enjoy novels of political intrigue or swashbucklers, you can certainly read this novel on its own, without reference to the other two works. I would suggest, though, that once you are finished, you do read the other two. All three of these King’s Blades novels are excellent and exciting reads.

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