Three books follow fates of some unwanted but rebellious boys – they found refuge and are schooled in Ironhall, only to emerge as the finest swordsmen in the realm. Still such an exclusive schooling has its price – a magical ritual consisting of piercing your heart with a sword. If you survive you are binded to your ward, if not the king himself then whomever else that monarch designates. After that you owe them absolute loyalty, till death and you are magically compelled to follow them whenever they go. Even to the loo ;p.
In the first part a very fine young swordsman called Durendal is bonded till death to an effete noble fop at his king’s orders. Yet Destiny has many strange and inscrutable plans for the young knight—for a mission, a contest, and, perhaps, a treasure await him in a faraway land. But he soon finds himself enmeshed in treason and foul intrigues, compelled to betray the king he had hoped to serve. The Blades have ways to protect their own, but death and madness haunt the path to salvation—and few ever return unscathed.
I did like the premise, loosely based on the fates of Henry VIII (here called Ambroise IV) and the country, Chivial, was a bit like 16th century England. Duncan has created a fairly original magic system, based on conjurations of “spirits” associated with the eight elements that are recognized in his world’s cosmology. The swordsmen school, Ironhall, reminded me a bit of a similar institution from ‘Witcher’ but with higher graduate rates. So the adventure with a dash of magic was there, the world build was there; the only thing I lacked were some good characters.
Let’s face it: all gentlemen were so similar to each other that they bordered a string of Mary Sues. Their characterization seemed just wafer-thin as all of them behaved and roughly even spoke in the same way as if that school had erased all their singular traits and quirks.
Apart from that the author used time travel as a plot device so don’t expect a linear narrative or a lot of logic. I am not saying it was a complete disaster but I admit that when I started the second book I almost DNFed it because all of a sudden I found out that the king who died at the end of the first part was alive and kicking again… Fortunately everything was explained in the third book. I might not like some elements of that explanation but at least I understood the whole premise better.
Now let me tell you why I stopped in the middle of the series (which, as far as I know, consists of six parts). All because of Duncan’s portrayal of women. It bothered me a little already in the first two books, where women were roughly divided into virgins, whores and wives, but it it became blindingly obvious in the third, where the entire story was supposed to be about the indomitable, heroic and strong princess Malinda. Only it wasn’t. It was clear from the beginning of the book that Malinda couldn’t be a queen in her own right (unlike the historical Queen Elizabeth on whom she was modelled a bit) just because she was a woman. In fact she was the happiest and the safest when married to a prince (in the alternate version of her reality). Overall Malinda could only be described as a victim – first of her father, then of every high-born male who happened to look her way. There was a strong emphasis on her love life (because of course every princess needs a lover) which I found very strange; the first two books which were about the Blades, after all notorious philanderers, never really showed much philandering per se (because men are the souls of discretion whereas women gossip, right? And their dalliances are kind of natural whereas any woman with a lover is a slut).
A very macho series without a character who could lead the plot for me and make it palatable. Also a series with very weak females who cannot wait to get married, preferably to a Blade. If you decide to start it, it is recommendable to read all the parts in the proper order.