Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: THE KING’S DAGGERS trilogy by Dave Duncan

It’s a bit of a misnomer to label these three books a trilogy. What they really are is a single story broken up and told in a serial format, similar to what Stephen King did in his GREEN MILE tales a while back.
SIR STALWART, THE CROOKED HOUSE and SILVERCLOAK all take place during the Monster War first told of in Duncan’s THE GILDED CHAIN in his Tales of the King’s Blades series.
King Ambrose’s Royal Guard is constructed entirely from young men who train at Ironhall, an academy of sorts for wayward boys who have the skills and reflexes necessary to become master swordsmen. These men are willingly and magically bonded to their charge for life after the King runs a sword through their heart and ensures their never ending loyalty.
But the rules of Ironhall are strict, inflexible and not easily circumvented even in service to the King. One such rule states that candidates for the Royal Guard must be bonded in order of seniority from their time of arrival at Ironhall. With the death toll of the Monster War chewing through the ranks of the Guard at a prodigious rate the demands on Ironhall to produce more Candidates is quickly sapping their resources.
When Stalwart is denied his opportunity to join the Royal Guard because of his age he is offered to chance to serve his King quietly behind the scenes. Sir Snake leads the Old Blades, a group of retired Guardsmen who have been released from their binding but continue to serve the King by choice. Snake offers Stalwart the opportunity to join the Old Blades as a spy, banking that his youthful appearance and lack of binding scar will allow him to succeed where other Blades have failed.
In SIR STALWART Stalwart must infiltrate a group of rogue sorcerers who have been trying to the kill the king with seemingly unstoppable savage chimera and other magical creations. Aided by Emerald, a sister of the White Order who can sniff out magic, the two travel across the breadth of Chivial in the hopes of finding the murderous den. When Emerald is captured on the journey it is up to Stalwart to keep them both alive long enough to be rescued.
Later in THE CROOKED HOUSE Lord Digby, one of the King’s oldest friends, is murdered in front of the entire royal court, just steps from the King. With the entire Royal Guard turning the capital upside down for dark sorcerers Stalwart is sent to backtrack Digby’s trail and see if he can discover anything that may have led to the Lord’s death. Along with Emerald and Candidate Badger, an old friend of Stalwart’s from Ironhall, to keep him company Stalwart stumbles upon a murderous conspiracy that could allow a disgraced noble to murder the King from halfway across the kingdom.
Finally, in SILVERCLOAK, Stalwart and the Old Blades must prevent the world’s greatest assassin from murdering the King inside the auspices of Ironhall itself. The only problem is no one knows what the assassin looks like or how he plans to kill the King. With time running short Stalwart and Emerald will need to have their wits about them and their swords sharpened if they are going to save the King inside an entire school of half-trained swordsmen.
Although ostensibly billed as a YA companion trilogy to the King’s Blades stories I challenge anyone to read the Daggers’ books and find any appreciable difference in tone or subject matter to Duncan’s adult offerings. The Daggers’ stories should be viewed as a companion piece to the larger, more interconnected Blades’ tales. While the Daggers’ books do have a perfectly serviceable plot all their own, for fans of Duncan’s expanded universe like myself its interesting to have these books fill in some of the character beats in the ‘central’ story and poke around a bit in areas of Chivial that are only briefly touched on in the main books. 
I could just cut and paste my standard praise from any of my other Duncan based reviews into the following paragraph, but I’ll be a proper reviewer here and any avoid self-plagiarization.  Duncan’s clean, direct prose always seems fresh and exciting to me after some of the dense and overly wordy authors I usually take on. It amazing how sometimes a stripped down, no nonsense approach can be that much more effective at drawing me into the story. It keeps the tale moving along at a nice clip and allows my imagination free reign because everyone and everything in the story hasn’t been described ad nauseum.
In other Duncan offerings my chief complaint can be that sometimes he goes too fast and I never really know what the protagonist is thinking. But this isn’t a problem in the Daggers’ books. Here Duncan nicely balances the need to KEEP THINGS GOING without ever forgetting that our hero types Stalwart and Emerald are kind of alone in everything they do and it’s nice to check in on what’s driving them.
If you’re already familiar with the Blades books then you’re going to love what Duncan is doing here. If you’re not, don’t worry, the Daggers’ books are completely readable and enjoyable as a standalone tale. You’ll never feel like you’re missing out on a larger story. Once again, another Dave Duncan book I highly recommend. Feel free to slap on your shocked faces.

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