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Thursday, June 10, 2010

'Black Blade Blues' by J.A. PITTS

From the BLURB:

Sarah Beauhall has more on her plate than most twenty-somethings: day job as a blacksmith, night job as a props manager for low-budget movies, and her free time is spent fighting in a medieval re-enactment group.

The lead actor breaks Sarah's favorite one-of-a-kind sword, and to avoid reshooting scenes, Sarah agrees to repair the blade. One of the extras, who claims to be a dwarf, offers to help. And that's when things start to get weird. Could the sword really be magic, as the "dwarf" claims? Are dragons really living among us as shapeshifters?

And as if things weren't surreal enough, Sarah's girlfriend Katie breaks out the dreaded phrase. 'I love you.' As her life begins to fall apart, first her relationship with Katie, then her job at the movie studio, and finally her blacksmithing career, Sarah hits rock bottom. It is at this moment, when she has lost everything she has prized, that one of the dragons makes their move.

And suddenly what was unthinkable becomes all too real and Sarah will have to decide if she can reject what is safe and become the heroine who is needed to save her world.

I found this book because the wonderful Daniel Dos Santos did the cover-art (of course he did – it’s fabulous!). I really liked the sound of this book because it seemed to be a very different sort of Urban Fantasy.

As the UF genre grows, it can also get a little same-same. Sometimes I get into such a reading rut with this genre that I think if I never read about vampires and werewolves ever again, it will be too soon. Don’t get me wrong – I do love me some UF, and I do have a special place in my heart for the fanged and furry, but occasionally I want to break out of the box the genre seems to be creating for itself.
Recently I have enjoyed Gail Carriger’s ‘Alexia Tarabotti’ series for its steampunk-spin on werewolves, and Lydia Dare’s series that put lycanthropes in 1800’s England.

J.A. Pitts writing debut seemed to be the perfect remedy for me. It’s about Norse Mythology – goblins, giants, dwarves and dragons being the main fantastical creatures (but set in modern day Seattle). His series also stands out for having a lesbian protagonist. Great. Fantastic. Something entirely different but still befitting the ‘Urban Fantasy’ tag.

I really, really wanted to like this book. But the main problem with ‘Black Blade Blues’ is pace, or lack thereof.

By page 178 of this 398-page book not a lot has happened.

Pitts offers tid-bits of what’s to come by weaving a narrative alongside Sarah’s – told from the perspective of two ancient and terrifying dragons as they hide amongst humanity.
Meanwhile, from Sarah’s POV; strange things have been happening ever since she forged the prop sword, Gram. Since that black sword came into her possession Sarah has nearly been run off the road by a mysterious black Hummer. A movie extra called Rolph has warned her of the power the sword wields and implored her to use it for good, against dragons. She’s also come face-to-face with the smarmiest, most evil-looking philanthropic businessman she never wants to meet again. And a crazy homeless man in a dumpster warns her about the bones of the earth.

All of these snatches of information and mystery are interspersed with Sarah’s day-to-day life as she goes to her blacksmith job and her part-time job at a props department for a B-grade movie. A good chunk of Sarah’s narrative is also devoted to her rocky relationship with girlfriend, Katie, as Sarah struggles with her sexuality and coming out of the closet.
But the hints of ‘more to come’ are not enough to keep the story interesting. There aren’t enough clues dropped about the over-arching plot and all the in-between bits of Sarah’s life become tedious and frustrating when nothing much else seems to be happening in the plot.

The majority of Urban Fantasy is fast-paced. The story normally starts in the middle of a catastrophe of some sort and goes helter-skelter from there. Mercy Thompson’s ‘Moon Called’, when a stray werewolf turns up at Mercy’s garage. ‘Halfway to the Grave’, Cat makes a vampire kill in the opening chapter. ‘Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs’ has Jane Jameson waking up as one of the undead by the end of chapter one.
That’s one tried and true way to hook the reader – set them on a crazy ride and don’t let-up until you’ve got them buried so deep in plot and mystery that they can’t stop reading.
By the end of chapter one of ‘Black Blade Blues’ one of the swords Sarah made has been damaged by a ham-fisted actor. O-kay. Not exactly a thrill-ride start.
And like I said, the action doesn’t even pick up half-way through the book. It’s asking a lot of readers to stick with the story when the story doesn’t make itself apparent until well past page 100 (the magic number by which most readers decide whether to keep going with a book, or label it as a DNF).

The slow pace could have worked, if it wasn’t for the fact that Sarah isn’t an instantaneously likable protagonist.

The one sticking-point for on-the-fence readers may be if the narrative voice is strong enough to hold interest, despite lack of plot. Readers are willing to forgive a lot of plot-faults if they have an interesting or funny enough protagonist to go on a journey with.
J.A. Pitts hasn’t managed to make Sarah Beauhall into such a protagonist.

Sarah grew up in the Bible-belt. Her family, especially her father, were very pious and she was taught that homosexuality was ‘evil’. When we meet her at the beginning of ‘Black Blade Blues’ Sarah hasn’t spoken to her father for three years since becoming a blacksmith and dressing ‘like a boy’ (according to her Pa). Her family also don’t know that she is a lesbian, and currently in a relationship with a woman. But that doesn’t mean her family’s beliefs and negativity aren’t still with her. Sarah can’t ‘come out’ of the closet, and she can’t do PDA’s with Katie because in her head she still hears the derogative labels ‘fag’ and ‘dyke’ ringing in her ears.
Furthermore, Sarah can’t understand why Katie (beautiful, gorgeous, at home in her own skin Katie) would choose to be with her. Sarah thinks she is too fat – too curvy in all the wrong places. Her arms are too thick, her shoulders too broad. She has a very negative body-image that further impacts hers and Kate’s relationship.

Where Sarah’s narrative could have saved the slow-moving ‘Black Blade Blues’, readers are instead shackled to this self-doubting, self-hating protagonist who is just an all-round ‘downer’. She’s not fun to read. And when her negative voice is coupled with a slow-as-molasses plot... well, Pitts is asking a lot of reader’s patience.

I could have dealt with Sarah’s issues regarding her homosexuality. It could have been interesting – and I initially liked the idea of this nay-saying protagonist who, amidst a fantastical plot of battling dragons, is still just dealing with her sexuality. But it’s too much. Sarah is *so* down on herself, and so disgusted by her liking girls that by her twentieth self-loathing rant I was rolling my eyes and wondering why Katie put up with her.
I could have dealt with Sarah’s inner issues – if Pitts had just imbued her with a sense of humour. If she was quick-witted, silver-tongued or anything other than a fairly hum-drum chick whose most interesting quality was her unusual job of Blacksmith.

Two things I did like;

One, was the fact that Sarah is a lesbian. I don’t think that Pitts did the best job with this girl-on-girl relationship, but on principle I like a UF protagonist who breaks the mould. Why are we so willing to read an M/M romance, but not an F/F one? Granted, there aren’t a lot of homosexual protagonists out there in main-stream UF books.
I wasn’t at all fazed by the Sarah/Katie relationship – I actually wish Pitts had written more graphic, detailed sex scenes for them – if for no other reason than to compensate for Sarah’s negativity and to provide readers with tangible evidence of why Katie sticks around.

Two, I liked Sarah’s line of work. Less the blacksmithing, more her role as props creator and the forging she does for fantasy carnivals and medieval fairs. There’s plenty of opportunity for laughs – especially with the ‘ye olde’ medieval re-enactments and the people (fanatics!) who participate in them. The people Sarah creates props for are those (*cough* GEEKS *cough*) who know Tolkien’s Elvish and have serious debates about who would win in a battle between a dwarf and a goblin. I liked the fantasy within an Urban Fantasy – it was an interesting setting for the book.

I somehow read all the way through this. And though the ending is full of battle-glory, it wasn’t enough to outweigh the awfully slow beginning. And even the two aspects of the book I did like were not enough to make ‘Black Blade Blues’ anything other than a negative. Slow pace and a lacklustre protagonist turned this ‘highly anticipated’ novel into a ‘downright disappointment’ for me.

1.5/5

8 comments:

  1. Danielle,

    Your review is spot on. :)

    I was so disappointed with Black Blade Blues. Mr. Pitts has 2 more books in this series....maybe they will be better. But I'm not sure if I want to take that chance.

    M

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  2. awwww I hate wehen I get so disppointed with a book that sinmply had everything to be awesome and just doesnt deliver... great review!

    I do love the cover though! Damn, Daniel dos Santos is an awesome artist!! Im wondering if he is Brazillian LOL need to google it =P

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  3. Egh.... Sarah's from the Bible belt and gonising over her sexuality? Why?! It makes me feel likeeither the author is going for a tried and easy storyline or wants us to feel it's weird and wrong to love someone of the same sex. I'd love to see a f/f story where both lovers are confident in their sexuality.

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  4. While I agree there were some pacing issues I generally give first time authors a brake on that end. I actually liked the fact that Sarah had issues dealing with coming out and body image, it ignore those very common aspects of modern society would be to belittle the people who suffer them.

    That being said, I recommend you give him at least one more shot, hopefully with the second book, now that the characters and relationships have been established, things will jump in quicker and we'll see a more satisfying character arch.

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  5. Sorry this didn't work out so well for you. Kudos if you decide to try book two.

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  6. I pretty much disagree with the whole review, i personally loved the book. Kept me interested and i finished it in short order.

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  7. I don't completely agree with this review. For me the book was a gift from a friend of the family, because I am also a female learning blacksmithing. I read the back of the book and wasn't all that interested, UF isn't what I typically like, I just don't like Urban period. I also wasn't interested in reading about a lesbian love story. I did give it a chance though and was pleasantly surprised by it. I was happy to hear about Julie being a blacksmith and her relationship issues with people thinking she's a dyke and not being so. The story didn't run the smoothest, but it still kept me interested. You seem to have been eagerly waiting for that battle scene, that was actually my least favorite part of the story, I didn't like the way it was done, not sure why, but that just bored me, and i like fighting and gore.
    Over all, I enjoyed the book, and reading a second, sounds great.

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  8. I disagree with this review completely. The "waiting for something to happen" is not a problem of a story, but a problem with a reader and his expectations of what the book should be about. This book more than mystery or thriller that you usually read in Urban Fantasy (I thought you were looking for something different), it's a book about woman coming of age, so while we have all this problems about dragons in the periphery, this introductory books is about learning about Sarah, her life... you know like in a slice of life kind of way.

    Now, the book certainly had it's issues, I just don't agree with the ones you're presenting. And you're right about Sarah, she's not easy to like... but I think that comes from the standpoint of someone who's not comfortable in her skin, so that discomfort touches the reader's perception. We don't have to like her, but we have to understand her.

    By the end of the books the character has gone through a lot of character development, she's not nearly the same person who began the book. We'll see where the rest of the books take us.

    Anyways, an author debut with flaws but a more than competent effort in that context. 1.5/5 is completely harsh and based on the review it seems to me that you had the wrong preconceptions of the book and didn't care much for what the book was actually about, and as a result you didn't get the "correct" experience.

    3.5/5 would be my rating and a 4/5 I would give it considering that it's a debut.

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