'Exile. Mercenary. Lover. Monster. Pennyblade.
'Kyra Cal’Adra has spent the last four years on the Main, living in exile from her home, her people, her lover and her past. A highblood commrach—the ancient race of the Isle, dedicated to tradition and the perfection of the blood—she’s welcome among the humans of the Main only for the skill of her rapier, her preternatural bladework. They don't care which of the gleaming towers she came from, nor that her grandmother is matriarch of one of Corso’s most powerful families.
'But on the main, women loving women is a sin punishable by death. Kyra is haunted by the ghost of Shen, the love of her life, a lowblood servant woman whom Kyra left behind as she fled the Isle.
'When a simple contract goes awry, and her fellow pennyblades betray her, Kyra is set onto a collision course with her old life, and the age-old conflict between the Main and the Isle threatens to erupt once more.'
Often when fantasy stories involve elves they're portrayed as regal beings, ancient creatures whose society is so old and so wise that they look down upon humanity and see us as nothing more than savage children; it's the classic Tolkein elf. And whilst the elves in Pennyblade are ancient, are more advanced, and do look down upon humanity, we quickly learn that they are just as savage, just as decadent, and just as corrupt as us. And I absolutely loved it.
The story of Pennyblade is split across two different times, set a number of years apart, in a twisting narrative that follows Kyra Cal'Adra, a high born commrach. In the present day narrative Kyra is living on the mainland, the human territory. She's left her home to live on the road, travelling from one small town to the next putting her skills as a sword fighter to good use to become a pennyblade, a hired mercenary. We quickly learn that despite being good at her job she's hated by most of the people around her. People distrust her because she's a pennyblade, they hate her because she's not human, and they despise her because she loves women.
Kyra's been travelling with a small group of pennyblade's, taking work wherever they can find it; but when a simple mission to kill a man who's been coming to a small town, forcing the inhabitants to hand over women and girls to him for him to sleep with, goes wrong her life on the mainland is changed. Suddenly she's alone, unsure if she can trust anyone, and when she passes out from exhaustion running from an angry mob she wakes inside a local church. Unfortunately, the church didn't take her in out of the kindness of their heart. Instead, they plan to force Kyra to work for them. With no way to escape her captors, and with the threat of execution hanging over her head, Kyra's forced into even more danger.
Whilst reading this we also alternate between Kyra's past, to the time where she was still living on The Isle, the homeland of the commrach. Here we see a much different version of Kyra, where she lives a life of luxury with her twin brother Kyran as part of one of the ruling houses of their nation. Here Kyra is something of a spoilt brat, and she's trying to rage against a system that she's expected to be an active part of and uphold for future generations as her scheming grandmother attempts to plan out the futures of Kyra and Kyran. These chapters not only give us further insight into the commrach society, but also fills in the gaps explaining how Kyra ended up living on the mainland as an exiled mercenary.
One of the things that I absolutely loved about Pennyblade, something that I'd seen other people talking about before I got this book, is how awful so many of the characters are. J.L. Worrad doesn't seem to be concerned about creating a story where you'll instantly like the protagonist. You might go for the entire novel not even standing her; but what he does do is to create a group of characters that I adored in spite of the fact that they're all complete bastards.
The Kyra on the mainland is bitter, resentful, out only for herself, and is willing to screw over most of the people around her if it gets her ahead. Thrown into this is Sister Benadetta, a member of the Pilgrim's church who ensnares Kyra into working for her. She considers Kyra to be without a soul, she hates her for being a lesbian, and she uses her position to hurt people. There's also Shortleg, a mercenary who's a womaniser, a homophobe, and generally unlikable in every way; and Nail, a Caliban, a human commrach half-breed, who seems to hate everyone, who lies and cheats, and seems thoroughly untrustworthy. And this is our group of heroes. This is the noble band that is going out into the world to stop an evil cult and save everyone.
But despite all of these flaws, despite every single one of them being terrible in some way, you can't help but like them. You slowly see connections begin to form between them. They start to trust each other, they begin taking risks for each other, and they start bringing the best out in each other. By being forced into this situation none of them actually want to be in they get to grow and evolve, becoming fairly decent people. By the end of the book I was loving spending time with them, to the point where I was sad to see the book end because I wanted more time with the weird little dysfunctional family. They'd come a long way, and I wanted to see them grow more, to become even better and realise that they were actually pretty good people now.
About half of the book is set in the past, a few years before the main story, when Kyra was still living with her people. The Kyra we see here isn't a good person either, but is a very different one nonetheless. This version of Kyra sees herself as better than most. She's grown up in a position of extreme wealth an priviledge, of never really having to worry about not getting whatever she wanted. And this is where the main drive of her story in this era comes in. Kyra is finally being told what she can and can't do, and she's raging against that.
Kyra comes across a young woman, Shen, who challenges her in ways she's never seen before. Shen comes from a small town, outside of the city of Corso. She doesn't like the system that The Isle has, she doesn't like the way their society is, and she refuses to fit into it the way everyone expects. This intrigues Kyra, draws her in, and when she realises she loves Shen it sets her on a new path from the one where she thought she'd spend her days drinking, playing, and sleeping with any woman she desired. Her life is also disrupted in other ways as her grandmother has arranged for her to marry a man from a rival house, despite Kyra having no interest in men. Now Kyra is trying to work a way out of it, having to engage in plotting and politics in ways she's never had to before; and it pushes her abilities to the limit.
This Kyra is a schemer, but also a dreamer. She thinks that if she can just figure out the right plan, come up with a clever enough play she can outwit her grandmother's machinations. Despite only being set five years before the main events of the book this Kyra feels so much younger, and it shows how much her time on the Mainland has changed her. But these sections aren't just an insight into her, but her people as a whole.
The human world of Pennyblade is very similar to our own history in a lot of ways, albeit a world with magic and the existence of elves. The commrach society, on the other hand, is very different. Whilst the human world is ruled by capitalism and religion, with the poor forced to live in squalor, and queer peopl persecuted, the commrach have none of this. There might be different levels in their society, but none are left on the streets to survive on their own. They aren't ruled by puritanical thinking, and sex and queerness aren't seen as anything to be ashamed of or hidden away at all. The vast majority of elves seem to be open to all genders, with the odd exception being those born twins, where they're born homosexual. And the elven society even has trans people, who are never treated as anything but their actual genders, and not what society believes them to be.
But that doesn't mean the commrach are perfect, as there's a lot in their world that seems brutal, or even openly sadistic at times. Worrad hasn't just created a race of people who are humans with long lives and feelings of self importance. The commrach feel completely alien in a lot of ways. They're a society so unlike the human one, shaped not just by their long different history, but by the fact that they're so different to us biologically too. It's one of the most interesting take on elves I think that I've ever seen, and it makes for a fantastically compelling read.
Pennyblade is a book filled to the brim with amazing, interesting ideas, with characters that are flawed and awful, yet so wonderful at times too. There are no big fantasy hero archetypes here, just imperfect people in an imperfect world, trying to balance the scales out a bit by doing a little good whilst they can. Whilst this book is a perfect story all on its own, and I loved every moment of it I truly hope that this is a world that Worrad revisits in the future, as I'd love to see more.
I got the chance to ask the author some questions about Pennyblade, the world that he created, and any plans for the future.
You’ve previously published science fiction work, but Pennyblade seems to be your first foray into the world of fantasy. Was it a big change to go from writing sci-fi to fantasy, or did you find certain similarities between the two genres?
It was no way near as big a leap as I thought it would be. That said I may not be the typical genre-slider. Science fiction is often called the ‘literature of ideas’ whereas fantasy—and I’m generalising here—has greater focus on character. Thing is, all my SF ideas tend to involve the mind and personality.The idea behind my Feral Space books, for instance, is of humans culturally raised from birth to be several people, so my SF ideas require a focus on character. So it seems I can wear both looks.
A big difference I’ve noticed, and I’m surprised no one ever mentions this, is that in medieval fantasy you constantly have to explain the light source. Is there a candle? A hearth? Is daylight pouring through stained glass? What about shadows? Whereas in sci-fi you can just say there’s a room or whatever and the reader will happily screw in a lightbulb for you. The flip side is in fantasy you can really play with the imagery of light in a scene, embrace your inner Rembrandt.
The human world of Pennyblade seemed very similar to our own at times, and it felt easy to see the parallels between The Main and our own history, were there any real places or events that inspired your world building at all?
Given the commrach realm, the Isle, was so strange I thought it was vital to make the Main as recognisable a fantasy construct as possible: a quasi-European medieval world. It gives the reader something to cling to. So I went in with near-zero worldbuilding: the Main emerged through Kyra’s eyes as I was writing her.
But it couldn’t stay 100% generic for too long: my eccentricities leaked in. Hoxham and Hosshire took on elements of where I live, Leicester and Leicestershire. The vein of folk-horror emerged from that because Leicestershire has some spooky corners.
I had to dream up the mainland’s religion on the hoof. It’s essentially an alternative history where the Cathars--a Christian movement persecuted out of existence in Medieval France--became the ‘true church’ instead of Catholicism. ‘Perfecti’ was a real title in Catharism. A bit of Odinism got in there too. Not sure why…
Whilst I really liked The Main, I found The Isle to be absolutely fascinating. The culture of the commrach was really intriguing and I’d have loved to have seen more of it. Was there anything about them that you wanted to include in the book, but it just didn’t make it in?
The day-to-day life of the common citizen. We never see much of that because we’re with the aristocrats. The metalworkers and artisans have interesting stuff going on, what with their magical touch. Also, commrach civilisation has never developed agriculture in the classic sense. I liked the idea of a city feeding itself on hunter-gathering and wilderness cultivation. Nice concept, but it would have been worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake and would have slowed this particular plot. But it might not be in another plot.
The commrach seemed to be a very open society when it came to things like sexuality and gender, and seemed hugely ahead of the humans in this book as far as acceptance went. They’re also quite different from other ‘elves’ I’ve come across. What drove you to create them the way they did, was there a desire to make a race so completely different from what readers would expect?
Commrach civilisation is partly a critique of the classic elves trope, its creepy master race undertone, whereas the biological side is more a simple thought experiment, or at least was when I started. Their open sexuality comes down to the fact that, due to their breeding cycle, no one can get pregnant for eleven months of the year. The physical liberty we’ve enjoyed since the contraceptive pill got invented they’ve had a taste of since time immemorial. Add to this the fact the commrach (like many species of birds) have no sexual dimorphism. All sexes having equal physical strength would, I suspect, stop patriarchy and all its symptoms from ever occuring.
I think—and as a cis person I may be wildly off target here--that such a breeding cycle would give cultural breathing space to gender expression. All the genders that are becoming part of public consciousness in the last couple of decades in our world the commrach have had words before they had even invented fire.
Really I’m not creating different elves so much as messing with the dials, turning up the contrast. They’re beautiful and sexually liberated but they’re also inhuman and vaguely, well, fascist. That’s all already there in the modern elven trope.
Throughout the book we learn more about the commrach through the flashbacks to before Kyra leaving, but because they were written from the point of view of someone who knows their society she didn’t feel the need to explain much, as such we only got small glimpses into what they’re like. Are you able to tell us more about them? For example, I was super interested in the hints that they evolved from cats, and the small revelation towards the end that they’re incredibly long lived.
The cat thing is pretty fun isn’t it? That, again, emerged as I wrote and elves and cats are both nimble. A week into the first draft I was having a conversation with a pal and I pointed out that, if humans had a breeding season then we wouldn’t celebrate birthdays so much as celebrate a birth month for almost everyone. It would be a public holiday (This was another thing I didn’t get to explore!). On the way home from my friend’s I thought ‘screw it, let’s put a breeding season in there, see what happens’. I’m glad I did because from thereon Pennyblade grew thematic teeth.
There’s a bit of a paradox though. The commrach seem to have feline ancestry but at the same time they can reproduce with an ape: humans. So really commrach should have some closeness to humans like Neanderthals or Denisovians did. It makes no evolutionary sense. Clearly some magical shenanigans went on in the forgotten past. I just don’t know if anyone in-world is in any position to discover what though.
I loved how the main group in the present time were a quartet of really unlikeable people, folks who lie, cheat, insult each other, and aren’t afraid to kill people. But as the book went on they all seemed to soften to each other, and seemed to really like each other by the end. Was it a hard line to avoid making them too unlikeable?
I think I crossed it with some readers! I appreciate not everyone is going to gel with Kyra and the others. So far I’ve found readers either joyfully embrace them or they bail in absolute disgust. Which is kinda gratifying for an author: I’ve evaded ‘meh’.
Personally I love dark, ‘difficult’ characters. If Frodo does something good we take it for granted. If Gollum does something good it’s a slap to the reader’s expectations and emotions, because he’s defeated his own awfulness. A candle shines brighter in the dark.
Plus unlikeable characters make me work harder. I’ve heard a few musicians swear that playing a crappy guitar, one that goes out of tune fast and hurts the fingers to play, brings out your best songwriting and I totally get what they mean. The moments when Kyra reaches out to someone with honesty and empathy are scant but they’re everything and they took all my ability. They had to be absolutely right or the book would be a cynical pit.
There’s a lot of action spread over the course of Pennyblade, including some sequences that are more unusual than some folks would expect. Did you have to do much research into weapons and combat training in order to craft such detailed and convincing fights?
It’s very gratifying to hear they’re convincing. I’m no sword officionado, so I read up lots and watched a load of YouTube vids (Swordtube is a friendly place, I’ve found). It was one of the first things I did because my starting point was Kyra herself and swords are her job. I went in not even knowing what kind of blade Kyra used and, after talking with my friend and eternal sounding board, Matt, decided on a rapier. Commrach magic makes things super-sharp so a rapier- the greatest pointy-end ever devised- was the natural fit. Such magic makes armour anathema to the Commrach. That informs the fighting style, which is dodge-or-die.
As for the human mainland, I went for a 12th century warfare vibe but with one major omission. I won’t say what because no one’s pointed it out yet and I’m interested to see if anyone ever does.
The book ends in a way that made it feel like a solid conclusion, that this was a good end to the stories for the characters, but it also felt like it could be the start of a new life for several of them. Do you have any plans to come back to this world or write more for these characters?
If Titan Books asked I write a sequel nothing could stop me from leaping at the keyboard. I love hanging out with many of these characters and I love the dialogue they come up with when we do a scene. Of course it all depends on whether Pennyblade finds its audience. I remain optimistic.
I keep writing bits of a short story that’s a whole chapter of Pennyblade but is instead seen from the eyes of a minor character- Poppi Simmuns- rather than Kyra. Poppi has a whole interior world and outlook that really speaks to me. So maybe that will appear somewhere some day.
You’re a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, according to your author bio. What are your favourite works in these genres, and what stories have influenced you the most of the years?
Iain M. Banks was the real gateway drug. His imagination and humanity showed me what genre could do. My golden age of genre-reading happened when I was periodically unemployed periodically for almost a decade. I could only afford second hand books and thus I’m very 60’s-70’s influenced: LeGuin, Dick, Ballard, Delaney, John Brunner, Frank Herbert. All those cats explore inner space as much as outer. A special shout-out to Cordwainer Smith who is utterly, utterly unique and deserves a renaissance. He wrote my favorite short story: The Ballad Of Lost C’Mel.
This is an embarrassing admission but I’ve not read as much fantasy as I have SF, something I’m remedying. I owe George Martin and Joe Abercrombie a hell of a debt, no argument there. Ellen Kushner’s Riverside novels are a massive influence on Pennyblade, so too Peter McLean’s Priest Of Bones. Clark Ashton Smith’s fantasies delight me, his poetic imagery lingers in my mind.
Are you working on anything at the moment that fans of Pennyblade can look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’ve another novel set in the same world which should be out next year or so. It’s a wider canvas, more character viewpoints and intrigue and the like. The main character is a foppish, friendly sort, decidedly more agreeable than our dear Kyra. But I’ll say no more.
And if people enjoyed this where can they find out more about your work?
Thanks for the questions. They’ve been a pleasure to answer!
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