The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe
First-time novelist Alex Bledsoe's The Sword-Edged Blonde is a genre mash-up of hardboiled detective and fantasy quest novels, which sounds odd until you consider the similarities that these kinds of stories tend to share share: grizzled, wise-cracking, fiercely independent protagonists who live by their own code, and spend a good quarter of any book being knocked unconscious. And whether it's the Pasadena mansions, flophouses, and seedy bars of a Chandler novel or the castles, alehouses, and rogues' dens of a fantasy novel, our heroes have to traverse their landscapes, uncovering the right secrets and cracking the right heads to achieve their ends. Bledsoe's clearly onto something here.
Like many classic hardboiled heroes, Eddie LaCrosse has cut himself off from the past in an effort to shake off the personal demons lurking there, and is holed up in a seedy, backwater town taking any job that comes his way. The book gets off to a shaky start when Eddie is enlisted to track down a kidnapped princess, an exposition-heavy plot thread that's, fortunately, tied up rather quickly.
The real fun begins when Eddie is contacted by his childhood best friend, now the ruler of a neighboring kingdom, for some discreet assistance in solving a grisly crime. The king's infant son has been horribly murdered (it's gruesome), and the queen is the most likely suspect. And despite her insistence to the contrary, Eddie just can't shake the feeling that he's met her somewhere before, under bloody circumstances.
In order to solve the mystery of the Queen's identity and her son's murder, Eddie has to reexamine his past, venturing to places on the map, and in his own psyche, that he hasn't visited in years. Through the effective use of flashbacks, dark secrets are gradually teased out, and old wounds opened, and Eddie realizes that the evil he's trying to track down is older, deeper, and more unbelievable than he'd ever imagined.
Once this plot gathers its momentum, it's unstoppable, and filled with fantastic twists and surprises, and a satisfying finish. However, the book's success is hampered by that most insidious quality of fantasy fiction, the casual sexism. I almost hate to single Bledsoe out for this, as I've encountered it in most of the depictions of female characters in science fiction and fantasy written by men, but it bothered me enough that I felt it was worth remarking on.
Considering that Eddie's character isn't established as a rake or a letch, it's odd that he ogles nearly every female character in the book that crosses his path, in prose that's often cringe-inducing. Upon meeting one of the book's more incidental characters, Eddie thinks, "For such a prolific breeder, Shana Vint was still very attractive in an earthy, sensual way that went well beyond physical appearance. I imagined that, had I married her, she'd have spent a lot of time knocked up, too." Another character is described as wearing a dress "so tight you could count her freckles" (what does that even mean?).
This type of description extends to the book's central female characters as well, relying on that well-worn trope that a woman in fantasy can be tough, independent, and strong, provided that's she's also gorgeous, sensual, and hot for our hero.
The conventions of gender and objectification in fantasy fiction are done to death, and Bledsoe is too fine a writer to be taking them up. In The Sword-Edged Blonde, he's crafted a memorable world, an engaging hero, and a tight, razor-sharp plot. I hope that, in his next book, we see a lot more of this, without all those stale, busty serving wenches.