Pennyblade (J.L. Worrad) – Book Review

Pennyblade is the latest fantasy novel from Titan Books, and follows an exiled commrach (elf) living in the human world, putting her skills to use as a mercenary for hire as she tries to outrun her past. The only problem she faces, however, is that wherever she goes in the human world she is seen as a monster, and unfortunately, some people have no problem using monsters to fight other monsters.

The narrative of Pennyblade is split across two time-frames, separated by five years. In the present we follow Kyra Cal’Adra, the daughter of a high household in the commrach world, who has spent the last four years on The Mainland, living amongst humans. Here Kyra has used her impressive combat skills to find work as a pennyblade, a mercenary for hire. When a job goes wrong, Kyra finds herself at the mercy of the church, an institution that hates her for being a soulless elf, as well as for her loving women. The vicious woman who brings her back to health gives Kyra a choice: work for her, help her to hunt down and destroy a dangerous cult that has been growing, or face public execution by burning.

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In the past, we follow Kyra as she lives a life of privilege on The Isles, a place where no human has ever trodden, where her people rule supreme. Here Kyra is part of one of the ruling families, and is able to spend her days practising her swordplay, drinking, and sleeping with any woman she wants. But when her manipulative grandmother hatches a plan to marry Kyra to a son of a rival house in order to promote the family interests, she finds herself having to out-scheme the old matriarch in order to get the life she wants.

Across both of these interweaving and connected narratives the reader will get to know Kyra, a woman who is pretty unlikable if I’m being honest. Kyra is self centred, a liar, and a cheat. She’s often out for herself and doesn’t care who gets hurt in her mission to come out on top. However, I couldn’t help but love her. Over the course of the book Kyra is surrounded by equally unlikable characters, others that she’s forced to work with in this mission to stop this cult. But by the time things were done I absolutely loved them all. This team slowly grows on each other, going from openly insulting each other to doing it playfully, to genuinely having each other’s backs and being willing to put themselves at risk for the team.

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J.L. Worrad has managed to walk this ridiculously fine line between having lovable characters and complete dicks, and there will be times when you find yourself straying more to one side than the other (and I’d not blame you for spending ages thinking that they’re just awful people), but it’s so fantastically done that I think you’ll find your opinions changing more than once over the course of the novel.

One of the things that’s absolutely fantastic about Pennyblade is the world building. The Mainland, the human world, is very similar to our own in a lot of ways; but even here Worrad has put some subtle changes into place. It feels just familiar enough to not be completely alien or off-putting, but  has enough newness and mystery to it that you’re constantly excited when you get to go somewhere new. The best stuff, however, comes when you get to explore the commrach’s home during Kyra’s flashbacks.

The elves of this book aren’t like your Tolkien elves. These aren’t stuck up folks with pointy ears and a superiority complex. (Well, they do actually have a superiority complex and pointy ears, but they’re very different to any other elves I’ve ever read before!) It seems like these people have evolved from completely different animals to humans, some kind of cat-like creature; and this very much informs their society. They’re a people where grace, agility, and bursts of power dictate their sports and their fighting. They also go into heat like cats, and they have strange rituals and practices whenever the ‘season’ begins. They’re cunning, duplicitous, and will do whatever it takes to get ahead in the world; all those wonderfully self centred attributes your cat has.

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One of the best things about their society though is how inclusive it is. Now, it is a harsh society, where racial purity and status means a lot to them, but they’re incredibly open too. The vast majority of the commrach seem to be open to people of any gender, and have a very fluid sense of sexuality, although in rare circumstances they’re born as twins, in which case they’re homosexual. They also have trans elves, people who are acknowledged as the gender they really are, not the one they’re born as, and these folk are never shunned for who they are. This is not only huge to see within this world, due to the human population being queerphobic, but was wonderful to see as a reader too.

Pennyblade is a challenging, exciting, and engaging read. It’s a book where complex and morally grey people are thrust into situations where they’re forced to do good and grow as people. Watching their journeys was not only delightful, but hugely entertaining. Whilst this book ends in a satisfying way I really hope that these are characters Worrad will return to one day, as I’d love to get more.

Pennyblade is out on 15th March from Titan Books.

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