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Swords and Scoundrels by Julia Knight
4.5
Book Name: Swords and Scoundrels
Author: Julia Knight
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Steampunk
Release Date: October 6, 2015 (US) October 8, 2015 (UK)

Swords and Scoundrels is the first book of the Duellists Trilogy following the lives of siblings Kacha and Vocho, master duellists thrown out of the guild and into adventure. Think daring swordfights and witty banter, think nefarious plots and manipulative villains, think betrayal and love, there’s also a lot of clockwork powering the whole thing.

After being kicked out of the guild and turning to robbery to survive, Kacho and Vocho’s luck only gets worse when they come across an enormous chest of unknown origin. What follows is an exciting and action packed journey as the two siblings try to discover the truth of the chest’s contents while fending off attacks from sinister foes intent on getting it back, including a vengeful king and ruthless blood magician. Backing up the duellists is their long suffering valet Cospel and the seemingly bumbling noble Dom. This journey takes the unlikely group from the backwater outskirts to the clockwork capital of Reyes where danger lurks behind every gear.

Knight has created a fantastic and in depth world that breathes with a life of its own. Slowly through the chapters the author builds a picture of this amazing place where the clockwork relics of the old Castan Empire lie scattered across the country. There are also hints of even stranger locations told in passing which I hope will be revealed in the next books. There is a real feel of history to the place, helped by the recurring snippets of information about a revolution that we see in flashbacks. From religion to economics there is great attention to detail that makes the world feel like a truly vibrant place. The presence of technology is handled in an interesting manner, futuristic yet ancient, with the people rediscovering how things work. Even the language of the book is soaked in clockwork terminology, saying a character is like a coiled spring or cursing “god’s cogs” gives the writing a richness rarely found and making the world more believable.

Most of the book takes place in the City of Reyes which provides an excellent backdrop for the story. It is a very imaginative creation with ancient clockwork defences, and interesting locations like soot town and the shrive, all with their own character. But the most unusual thing about the city is the “changing o’ the clock” where every so often the city shifts on its foundations, rolling along giant clockwork rails to reposition the streets. It’s definitely one of the most remarkable locations I’ve ever read about.

The book has a selection of star characters to entertain the reader, Kacha and Vocho take the main stage, but there is also Egimont, a former noble who lost his place in the revolution and now works with the king to overthrow the prelate. The bond between the siblings is well written and a continuing presence throughout the book, their attitude and interactions are believable and give the characters a very human feel. Vocho is brash and arrogant, his chapters are full of boasting and bravado, with lots of little touches of personality means the narrative voice has a lot of character. Kacha is the more sensible one, her deep need to be perfect for others is beginning to crumble under the weight of her situation. She also has a romantic past with Egimont that is a continuing source of tension through the novel. In a series of flashbacks the novel also reveals something of the siblings’ past, their poverty stricken home and the relationship of each with their father is well developed and carries on so the reader can see the results in the adult’s personality.

Egimont is an interesting character, possessing a rare nobility he is pulled into the schemes of others as a result of the betrayals he has suffered. Though he set’s himself against the duellists it’s hard to see him as a villain, that title belongs to his more sinister employers. Egimont is just as developed as the siblings with great depth to his character, the reader learns his story through flashbacks as well, and while we might never want to see him win over Kacha and Vocho, there is a desire to see things turn out well for him.

There are a number of intriguing supporting characters, the bumbling comrade Dom is good for a laugh, and his hidden talents do a nice job of attracting mystery about him. King Licio swings a bit in his nature but provides a decent villain to rail against. The magician Sabates is a better mark, ruthless and manipulative, with horrific powers at his disposal, he makes for a very unsettling character and only grows worse as the reader learns more about him.

The plot is quite involved, there’s a lot of hidden plans and conflicting factions with their own agendas. Thankfully it never grows confusing and the narrative flows smoothly as the siblings are dragged into the greater schemes of those in lusting for power. Inside the great events there are very human stories of betrayal and loss that draw the narratives together and make them feel realistic. The characters are inextricably woven into events and Knight manages to tease out just enough information for the story to move on while keeping the reader guessing. The climax reveals a host of truths about the characters and has some nice emotional moments to round out the drama.

Swords and Scoundrels has a bit of gutter about it, with characters operating in the shadows and back alleys. There are no great magical duels or epic battles, in fact the only overt fantasy elements are shown in the half-understood powers of the magicians. With a tight focus on its characters the book crafts a very entertaining story where all the cogs mesh. I’ll definitely be getting the next one in the series, if only to see if Kacha really does murder her annoying brother.

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Rating: 8.5/10 (6 votes cast)
Swords and Scoundrels by Julia Knight, 8.5 out of 10 based on 6 ratings
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