Published: November 5th 2013 by Orbit Books
Format: Paperback, 387 pages
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It's been five long years since the city learned to fear...
The war between the thief guilds and the powerful allegiance known as the Trifect has slowly dwindled. Now only the mysterious Haern is left to wage his private battle against the guilds in the guise of the Watcher - a vicious killer who knows no limits. But when the son of Alyssa Gemcroft, one of the three leaders of the Trifect, is believed murdered, the slaughter begins anew. Mercenaries flood the streets with one goal in mind: find and kill the Watcher.
Peace or destruction; every war must have its end.
Alas! My avoidance of sequels has been justified.
Ok, so. A Dance of Cloaks, while predictable, was an enjoyable and satisfying read. Its successor, A Dance of Blades, is a hot mess of confused tropes and incessant violence, with almost no character development and no overreaching theme that I could detect. Simply put, it’s a sequel that probably should have never been written.
So where does it go wrong? Well, it’s been five years since the end of A Dance of Cloaks, and Hearn has settled into the role of The Watcher – he literally watches what the Thief Guilds are up to and assassinates their members one by one, always hoping to incite them to violence and finish one another off. And thus solve the corruption problem plaguing Veldaren.
I repeat: after fighting his father’s wishes for him to become an assassin for the Spider Guild, Aaron/Hearn has spent the last five years … assassinating people.
The naivety of this plan is mentioned by almost every character who meets Hearn throughout the narrative, but that doesn’t stop him from doggedly pursuing it.
There are many new characters introduced in this novel, with silly names like Deathmask and Ghost. It feels like a child wrote these characters – they’re flat, their names tell us everything we need to know about them (as with The Watcher, I might add), and they motivations are almost laughable. Ghost, in particular, is lacklustre – his impact on the narrative seems to have more to do with his skin colour than his skills in tracking people and killing them. Some favourites from the past are re-introduced, which I actually liked, but a lot of the agency that Veliana, for example, had in the first book, is taken away from her with the introduction of her companion, Deathmask. Zuza, another female character I’d liked in the first book, is pitifully under-utilised and shoved into a corner until she’s needed to counterpoint Hearn’s amaze-sauce fighting skillzzzzzz.
Alyssa Gemcroft. OK so we all saw how she was manipulated by her fiancé in the first book. I’d thought that maybe, since she’s now in control of the Gemcroft estate, she’d be all strong and awesome. But we have her being manipulated by her two suitors, in the beginning, and then later used by her fiancé. She’s this horribly weak, insipid character with a thirst for revenge (make the streets should ‘run red with blood’, she says), but then she second-thinks it the moment it’s too late to recall the orders. She wants to teach the guilds a lesson, except all she does is give them a common enemy to unite against. If I could discern a reason for her actions, I’d understand her better, but we’ve always been lead to believe she’s a smart, capable lady, and here we have her ruled by her emotions and ignoring good advice from those around her.
The other thing I don’t quite understand about this book is the plot. Or the utter lack of one. A Dance of Blades is basically all dialogue and fight-scenes, alternating in a cycle that is sporadically broken up by inner monologue as Hearn tries to figure out what the hell he’s doing. It’s quite fast paced. The villain of the story – Alyssa’s fiancé – is cruel and horrible, but also pathetic in how little motivation he has aside from the Gemcroft wealth. Thren, who had made for an excellent, if predictable, villain in the last book, is disappointingly absent throughout this one.
And finally, let’s talk about the conclusion. The problem with prequels is that the end point of a story is always set in stone, and sometimes characters and plot lines have to be contorted unnaturally to achieve that. A Dance of Blades has been contorted unnaturally – there’s no other way to describe it. The ending is unsatisfying and has left me eyeing the third novel with trepidation.
So what did I like about the novel? Well Tarlak the magician is just about the only character I liked (“piss-yellow” robes!), and I love that Senke and Delysia came back. Yay! Senke acted as Hearn’s voice-of-reason for a lot of the narrative, but Delysia had no agency even though she has awesome magical powers. My favourite parts of the book were those concerned with the small family outside of the city who ended up taking care of a stranger’s child. Although I thought that the rape of the mother was unnecessary to the plot, the rest of their story was engaging and I think they were all brave in the face of grave danger.
I just feel disappointed with A Dance of Blades. The book lacked direction and heart, it barely made any sense, and I can’t credit either the writing or the characters. I’m really sorry to say that I feel like I wasted my time with this one.