Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe
Dark Jenny was the first entry in my commonplace book for Alex Bledsoe (though I’ve read The Sword-Edged Blonde); it was short. Not because I didn’t like the book, but because Bledsoe has a wonderful knack for one-liners. There are some entries where I have to set up the line I actually want to preserve, but this problem doesn’t with Bledsoe. When I won this on Twitter, I was delighted—despite the shaky worldbuilding, I really enjoyed The Sword-Edged Blonde, and I looked forward to another Eddie LaCrosse novel. I was not so delighted by the fact that I stupidly asked for the book to be shipped to my school during spring break, giving me very little time to read, process, and review Dark Jenny before its publication date. But I got it done, because frankly, this series is worth it.
Dark Jenny is a novel in flashback. One winter evening, drinking at the local tavern with his friends, Eddie LaCrosse, private sword jockey, receives a coffin by messenger. Intrigued, everyone asks for the story, which LaCrosse then tells. Back when the island kingdom of Grand Bruan was in its glory days and not a forsaken pit of civil war, LaCrosse was investigating a wayward husband when one of the Knights of the Double Tarn was murdered by a poisoned apple from the hand of Queen Jennifer. Suspected of the murder, LaCrosse tries to clear his name by aiding the investigation (although it’s not like he has much say in the matter) and finds himself in a complicated web of murder, secrets, and intrigue.
In Dark Jenny, Bledsoe, as you may have gathered from the premise, takes off on Arthurian myth; we’ve a King Marcus who pulled a king-making sword out of an inanimate object, a suspected affair between Queen Jennifer and a one Elliot Spears, and a shining citadel called Motlace. But Bledsoe doesn’t stick faithfully to that script (well, too faithfully)—there’s plenty of twists and turns and a delightful dash of deconstruction. LaCrosse, a hardened cynic, is pitted against a nation built on idealism. After encountering King Marcus, even LaCrosse is stunned: “I must’ve been light-headed from the stench of genuine idealism, because even though Drake and I were about the same age, his mystique was so intense I had the fleeting thought that I wanted to be him when I grew up” (135-136). It’s played with nicely throughout the novel; without it, I think the Arthurian connection would have felt a bit gimmicky. Also, it would have been less without its cynical hippie of a Merlin and his giantess of a girlfriend. (I love giantesses.)
Because this novel takes place in, more or less, one country, Bledsoe’s worldbuilding has, more or less, stabilized; it’s sturdier here than in The Sword-Edged Blonde, though it still occasionally stumbles—the femme fatale of Dark Jenny enters wearing a knee-length gown at one point, which drew me out of the story and made me start wondering about the culture in Grand Bruan. (Upon finishing the novel, perhaps it was foreshadowing, but I doubt it.) Otherwise, Bledsoe’s blending of hard-boiled detective fiction and fantasy remains unique and funny. I’m glad to see that the cover skews more detective, though I could stand a little more noir. LaCrosse tosses off witty one-liners tweaked for his own world, such as “I really don’t have a knight in this joust” (143). But LaCrosse is no James Bond; he has his own flaws that he recognizes and owns up to; he’s a little over the hill (even in this flashback), and, for most of the novel, his right hand is out of commission. Still, he has a sense of humor and plenty of common sense, making him an easy character to relate to—something required for a detective series. Why bother reading the series if you don’t like the detective in question? While the other characters aren’t as developed, they all have their own complex motivations. I would have preferred for the bad guys to be a little more complex, but Bledsoe does deal with the problem of a generation trained for war in peacetime, so it’s not like they’re one-dimensional.
As for the mystery itself, there are one or two leaps that LaCrosse made that I couldn’t follow, but the conclusion is ultimately an interesting intersection of several issues, compounded with the fact that we know how Grand Bruan turned out, and it wasn’t good. To be honest, despite my avowed love of a good story, I don’t read Bledsoe for a good mystery (though his mysteries are pretty good); I read Bledsoe to see how LaCrosse will interact with a good mystery. That, to me, is why I really enjoy this series. Otherwise, I’m not a huge mystery fan. But Bledsoe’s unique approach is certainly a lot of fun.
Bottom line: Alex Bledsoe’s unique and funny blending of hard-boiled detective fiction and fantasy continues in Dark Jenny, which places private sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse in a web of intrigue in an Arthurian court. While the worldbuilding makes occasional stumbles that bring you out of the novel, they’re far and few between, and LaCrosse’s blend of cynicism and humor contrasted against an idealistic society is an interesting conflict. A fun ride.
I won this advanced review copy from Tor.com’s Twitter account.
Dark Jenny will be released on March 29th—tomorrow!
- Bledsoe, Alex. Dark Jenny. New York; Tor Books, 2011. ARC.