THE MORTAL BLADE by Christopher Mitchell (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
Just two more to go, and here is our penultimate finalist review of SPFBO 7
A city ruled by Gods, a mortal champion, a misfit girl and a disobedient dragon…
Stolen from his home, Corthie Holdfast has arrived in the City of the Eternal Siege as a new Champion.
He must fight alongside the Blades, whose lives are dedicated to the defence of the City against the hordes of monstrous Greenhides; or die at the hands of the Gods who rule.
Maddie Jackdaw, a young Blade, faces her last chance. Thrown out of every unit defending the City, either she takes on a new role, or she will be sent to the Rats, a company of misfits given the perilous tasks beyond the Great Walls.
Her new role, if she takes it, will bring her face to face with her deepest fears, for beneath the walls, in a secret and hidden lair, lies a dragon, imprisoned and waiting…
I have a fondness for enigmatic female figures on the covers of books, so the composition of Mortal Blade’s cover appeals to me. The colour blends well, a little ominous in its choice of browns and greys to complement the threat of the masked protagonist. The editing and production values seem sound – there were no edits or typos that caught my eye. The prose works, telling its story albeit in a bit of a hurry sometimes and without much adornment. In places character developments and interactions felt a little rushed in execution and blunt in presentation – the kind of thing that could have been given a bit more texture through additional drafting stages.
I don’t mind the cover, although I don’t think it would stand out on a shelf. I also don’t think it’s particularly indicative of the story – I would expect it to primarily be about one person based on the cover, and that’s not the case at all. It was an easy and enjoyable read, although as Theo said some areas felt a little rushed.
The background of the novel with the mute brown and blue hues and a hooded woman in the front was created with beautiful graphics, though it is overall all a little underwhelming. It doesn’t do the novel much justice. The fonts and size chosen for blurb and title etc. are well-proportioned to the overall medium size novel. There is a character list at the front of the book as well as a map of the City of Eternal Siege.
The swift writing and storytelling quality of The Mortal Blade is very consuming. I found myself liking this novel pretty much right away, and that fondness grew even further when dragons entered the story. I didn’t see any editing issues, and the audiobook was fabulous too.
The cover doesn’t quite do it for me. It’s OK, but feels a little generic (there are a lot of covers out there with a protagonist on the front holding a weapon). I do like the typeface for the title of the novel as well as the title of the series. However, even that doesn’t really jump out to me. After opening the book, however, the production values are definitely good. No noticeable typos or issues with prose. While not erudite, the prose gets out of its own way and lets the story unfold without distractions, and that’s really what I’m looking for in an adventure novel like this one.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Mitchell gives us an interesting range of characters. Alia, the rebellious demigod trying to soften the impact of her cousin’s corrupt governorship over one section of the eternal city. There is Corthie, plucked from who knows where to be a champion in the constant battle against the hordes of greenhides. Maddie the truculent teenager thrown out of more military companies in months than a veteran would have served in an entire career. And finally we have Daniel, aristocrat and officer plagued by the competing demands of duty, parents and conscience. With the first two I felt there was a risk of them being Mary/Marty Sues, one actually immortal and the other constant acting as if he was immortal – while insisting he is mortal.
Of the four I warmed to Alia most, as Mitchell depicts the different aspects to her isolation – doomed to outlive a mortal companionship and also at odds with the culture and policies of her family, she belongs properly to neither the people who are ruled or the family that rules them.
The words Mitchell puts in his character’s mouths tend to advance the plot more than deliver nuance and subtext. While, dialogue is generally a good way to “show” rather than “tell” what a character is thinking and feeling, some of the conversations felt a bit forced and clunky to me.
I quite liked all the characters, although if I had to rank them, Daniel was probably my least favourite. I didn’t feel like his perspective brought as much to the story as the others. Aila and Corthie were probably my favourites, but I have to admit I wasn’t sold on their relationship. It felt a little sudden, and less believable considering Aila’s past.
I would have liked to see a little more time spent on Corthie’s history. I assume more will be revealed in future books, but rather than being interestingly mysterious, I found the lack of information frustrating.
There are many types of characters found in this novel ranging in a handful of groups from gods, mortals, evaders, and blades to outsiders. I was pretty much taken right away by Aila, the demigod who can make people perceive her as she wants to be seen. So she slips into these different roles, trying to fight the good fight and aid or protect the humans in the wrong hands of the government. Her heart is in the right place and her POV is interestingly portrayed. I like how the reader has to figure out who she is from the view of other characters near. That was well done.
Maddie Jackdaw, the Blade, assigned to take care of Blackrose, the dragon, is a character who grew on me over time. It took her a while to come to her own, and I enjoyed how her relationship with the dragon grew and she took agency.
Corthie is another character that comes to mind, as he has powers that a mortal shouldn’t have and he fights the Blades. And then there is Daniel, thrown into the mix whose relationship to his mother is off-puttingly awkward.
When it comes to the characters, the ladies shone more so than their male counterparts, though, the dragons are not to be missed. I loved Blackrose’s development in the course of the novel.
Theo has given us a good rundown of the different characters. The story is very structured, moving from one character viewpoint to another in a pattern that is never broken for the entire novel. This didn’t work well for me at the beginning of the novel, when it felt like I had read 15% of the book and was still getting new characters. I would have liked to have seen the changes in viewpoint serve as slightly more organic. Of course, some of that is because I probably enjoyed Aila the most, with Corthie and Maddie closely tied for second and Daniel a rather distant third. However, your mileage is likely to vary with that, as I don’t think there was a problem with characterization that resulted in my rankings, rather just my own personal taste. I suppose it is true that Aila, at least from my perspective, is one of the more complex characters given her age and life experience.
I do agree with Theo that the dialog–and character perspectives overall–tend to advance the plot more than make the characters come alive. There are a few moments where that isn’t the case, but overall I would have enjoyed a little more focus on the characters as characters.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
The plot threads are quite intricate, building on the internal politics and intrigue and external threats. Mitchell gives us a cast list at the beginning of the book and a family tree of the Gods, god-children and demigods (aka god grandchildren) at the end of a book, as well as map of the city. Generally I tend not to look too much at such front matter – preferring to pick things up through immersion in the text. The fact that I found myself flicking back to map and cast a few times is an indication that Mitchell has woven a tangled web of story which does take a bit of unpicking. Added to this, each character has their own distinct goals and needs which makes for quite high and varied stakes being played for.
I think the various plot threads were handled well, and were starting to come together nicely by the end of the book. I would have preferred a little more resolution by the end, but it is a minor quibble all things considered. There were also a few times when more background information would have been appreciated, as I found myself not caring as much about the impacts of various incidents as much as I probably should have.
As I mentioned above, the plot is very consuming. The changing POV’s and high-interest events, keep everything moving very well. The history of the gods and their relationship unfolds over time, and never feels overwhelming. My experience of this novel on audio was a positively engaging one and I recommend it.
There is a lot going on in terms of the plot, but I never felt like it became jumbled.
Mitchell does a good job of presenting the intricacies of the politics of the city and external threats without making things feel overwhelming, especially in the early going. My favorite part of all of this may have been the way in which each of the viewpoint characters find themselves caught up in that intricate plot in different ways and seeking different ends. This is the first book in a series and so there is still a lot of story to tell at the end of it.
If I had any complaints about the plot they would probably be that, while intricate, there were a couple times when I felt like things were maybe conveyed a little bluntly or without nuance. I also felt like there could have been a little more of a resolution at the end. The novel certainly has a distinguishable ending, but I could have liked that to be just a little more fleshed out.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
This is the aspect of the book that soars. The eternal city is just strange – in the way that Winston’s Smith’s clock striking 13 is strange in 1984. Though Mitchell doesn’t manage to push that dissonance in quite the first line, it builds as you discover new aspects of the world: The Sun that doesn’t rise or set, but somehow changes colour; the greenhides besieging without apparent motive or direction, like a seasonally recurring horde of insectoid zombies; the city’s seasons that shift into discrete and different climates like somebody had turned a switch; the champions brought (purchased) from other (more geographically normal!) worlds through some training grounds. Mitchell also has a richly imagined history to the city that has built to this moment in time. So the city we read about is the tip of an iceberg, in a wider universe Mitchell has imagined.
Within that city, I particularly appreciated Mitchell’s description of the Circuits, the slum region of the desperate poor where rioting and rebellion threaten the security of the political elite. In describing Daniel’s hesitant involvement in brutal suppression one was reminded of so many other failed and morally flawed military interventions to address the failure of discriminatory political polices. Think of Belfast in the Troubles, Palestine now, Mogadishu in the 1990s. The politics of poverty, how it is manipulated and how its despair finds expression, are powerful motifs for any speculative fiction to pick up on. Mitchell even puts the young officer Daniel at the heart of his own “Bloody Sunday” moment.
The worldbuilding was fantastic, and a real standout for me.
I wanted to know more about the world and its history, and there were a lot of tantalising hints to keep me reading. If I have any criticism it would be that I had a lot of trouble keeping track of the scale of the city, and where locations were in relation to each other. Often, it was spoken about as if it covered a very large area, more like several distinct cities banding together, but to look at the map, that was not the case at all. As a result, I often found myself surprised that characters were travelling between two locations much faster than expected, or covering considerably more ground than I would have thought possible based on previous descriptions.
In this story, the human world is dramatically reduced. The City of The Eternal Siege feels rich in detail albeit the inhabitants are mostly poor or of the upper echelons. There are areas in which characters can’t roam and there are dragons used by different motivating factors to insinuate rebuke.
This already had me very much. Given the elements of invasion and backstabbing gods, you have yourself a world that is pulled in different directions. I enjoyed this particular combo a lot.
In my opinion, the most stand-out element of The Mortal Blade is the world building. From the insectoid greenhides to immediate shifts of season to the weirdness with the sun and sky to the narrow strip of habitable land (go too far one way–HOT–too far another and its all ice) there is a lot here that is unique and intriguing. Of course, set in the midst of this very odd world there are very familiar politics and oppression. The Evaders who are looked down upon and used and begin to stand up against the policies that oppress them will be quite familiar. But so will the way one side’s hero is another’s demon. Mitchell does an excellent job of crafting this world not only in terms of the raw materials of world building (climate, geography, etc) but also in terms of the politics and cultures we encounter in that world. Once again, there are moments where things are stated rather bluntly, and I think a little more subtly in some elements could have really elevated things, but that’s somewhat of a nit-picky complaint. I really enjoyed the world building elements.
Quotations that resonated with you
There are quite a few lines that had a contemporary resonance and others that made me smile. For example this one of Daniel
“He had finally been accepted, he realised. All it had taken was murder.”
And this also of Daniel, where you can feel the mind of the author bleeding through
“How would he spend his days off? He caught sight of his well stocked bookshelves and smiled.”
I quite liked this quote from Buckler, about Corthie’s enjoyment of killing:
“It is a necessary evil. Humans lust after death; I was taught this in my youth, and you are the living exemplar; the idea made flesh.”
This book leans heavily on dialogue, more so than an overly descriptive prose. It is highly readable as for the example here:
Being Alive is good,’ said Maddie; ‘what’s the bad news?’
‘You can still talk. Only joking, that’s good news as well, of course. I look forward to hearing all of your many irritating questions while you convalesce.
I rather enjoyed Aila’s opening scenes, especially as we get to see how her magic works and I felt the author did a good job of capturing the tension of sneaking about:
She pictured one of the guards she had passed.
You see me as the guard from the door.
A staircase was at the end of the hallway, and she stole towards it, keeping her tread light on the floorboards.
Despite its length. Mortal Blade is an easy read because it rattles along at good pace. I liked the political themes coming through and the strangeness of the world, with hints hints of other worlds. My main gripe would be that, being clearly the first in a series, the book ends with so much unresolved and a multiplicity of cliff hangers. Yes, in a series you do have threads that carry on from one book to the next, but within a book some stories and arcs at least should come to a conclusion. Then again, I suppose The Fellowship of the Ring didn’t exactly end with even fragments of closure.
This was a solid read, and overall worth the time spent on it. I think I will continue with the series, if only to see whether my suspicions about the world are correct, and hopefully get some resolution on a few of the plot threads.
This novel is a great setup for the subsequent ones to follow. Not everything is resolved, which is somewhat irksome, but at the same time, it just means you have to read the next book. As I was listening to this novel, I wanted some resolve badly, it all culminated to this particular point, where it left me hanging. Though the overall enjoyment of this book was there from the first chapter. There were only a few moments I felt myself skimming a bit…romance, mother-son relationship issues…but it is a great story that feels big in a relatively small, given space.
I enjoyed this one. While there were a lot of viewpoints and it did take me a little bit to get invested because of that, and while I felt like there were some blunt or overly convenient moments to move the plot along or increase tension, the world building absolutely won me over. On top of that, once I was invested, I generally enjoyed the characters and found that I cared about their varying goals and what they were going through in their attempts to achieve those goals. While the ending could have had a little more resolution for my tastes, I’m also left wanting to jump into the next book, and that may be the best compliment I can give The Mortal Blade.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||7|