Book Review: Dark Jenny
by Alex Bledsoe
Tor Books, 2011
At the start of Alex Bledsoe’s delightful new fantasy novel Dark Jenny, our hero, “sword jockey” and investigating mercenary-for-hire Eddie LaCrosse is attending a swank castle dinner in order to fulfil the brief of his latest client. He’s supposed to trail Kenneth Spinkley, Lord Astamore, and determine if he’s being unfaithful to his wife:
It’s always fun interrupting an illicit tryst. Astamore had such a firm grip on the young lady’s waist that when he turned toward me, he inadvertently dragged her off the table, toppling a neat stack of ale mugs onto the stone floor. The lovers fell in a loud tangle of expensive silk, pasty flesh, and shattered crockery.
“Who the hell are you?” Astamore demanded as he struggled to fasten his trousers.
“The name’s LaCrosse, Eddie LaCrosse. I was hired to keep an eye on you, Lord Astamore.”
“Hired?” he exclaimed. He got to his feet and, ignoring the disheveled girl, tried to salvage his dignity. “By whom?”
As if he didn’t know. “Fiona. The Lady Astamore.”
He bit back whatever else he was about to say. The girl finally got to her feet, turned to me, and cried, “Oh, thank you, sir! He was compromising my honor!”
“Compromising the hell out of it, from what I saw,” I said.
That little exchange happens on page 29 of my Tor paperback edition (with a somber cover by the great Larry Rostant), and it’s perfectly indicative of the 320 pages to follow: sharp dialogue, a peppy narrative pace, a smart-mouth hero, and an authorial confidence in brazening out that hybridization of high fantasy and hard-boiled detective. This is Mickey Spillane meets Fritz Leiber, and it has a long and rather spotty pedigree in the history of fantasy-writing. I’m coming late to the Eddie LaCrosse novels (I just plain missed The Sword Edged Blonde and Burn Me Deadly), but I feel confident in asserting that this kind of thing has never been done better.
The plot of this instalment breaks on the reader immediately. Eddie has no sooner caught his errant lord in flagrante delicto than he’s accidentally on hand when a party guest bites into a poisoned apple, swells up like a tick, and practically dies in our hero’s arms. Eddie is taken into custody and threatened with dismemberment if he doesn’t solve the murder mystery in short order. The narrative takes place in the island kingdom of Grand Braun, which is ruled by the near-perfect King Marcus Drake (he achieved his right to rule by pulling an enchanted sword out of a tree, in case you need a house to drop on you) and his beautiful, complex Queen Jennifer, and Bledsoe’s romantic side shows clearly in the many ways he has even some of his most hard-bitten characters affirm that despite all the grime and crime and court back-stabbing, King Marcus is indeed the real thing. “He’s the best man I know,” one gruff bruiser says. “And I’m completely serious. Marc always tries to do the right thing, and he’s smart enough to know what that is.”
Of course, you can’t have a Camelot without a Mordred, and Bledsoe has created an especially oily example of the breed. He’s hardly alone: almost every character in Dark Jenny has seen the black side of life and made some compromises with it. In these pages Bledsoe manages to capture the feel of daily life in early medieval England better than some historians I know, and many of his people are quick with the philosophizing, and some of that philosophizing is very enjoyable to read, however familiar:
“Remember I said you had a taste for violence?” [a somewhat seedy wizard tells Eddie] You need to keep in mind that every man you kill was once somebody’s little baby and had a mother who probably loved him. I’m not saying you shouldn’t kill people; some people do need killing. But you should never enjoy it, because if you do, you’ve killed a part of yourself that won’t ever grow back. And I don’t think you’ve got many of those to spare.”
There’s a game spring to the talk that ripples throughout this book, and Bledsoe almost ever neglects to add the little stinger at the end of every exchange, as when our hero is being sent on his mission:
“There’s your horse,” Kay indicated a nearby tree where the animal was saddled and tied. “She’ll do fine for a long, fast trip. And here.” He handed me a sword and scabbard.
“I guess you trust me now.”
“I’m not sending you out unarmed. But I should warn you: If you intend to leave Grand Bruan without completing your job, Marc will send Tom Gillian after you. And Gillian won’t stop until he’s found you, and one of you is dead.”
I sighed and shook my head. “I knew it was too easy.”
“Yeah. And here’s this.”
He tossed me a small money bag. From its weight I could tell it included more gold than I’d asked for. While the threat of Gillian’s retributions was definitely a factor, this was the real reason he could trust me. Not the money itself, but what it represented: my word. I said, “For what it’s worth, if I take payment for a job, I see it through.”
“I hope so. Because so does Tom Gillian.”
Fans of action novels, fantasy novels, and gumshoe whodunits are urged to find Dark Jenny and go down its means streets with Eddie LaCrosse. This series deserves a long life – and far more readers than it currently has.