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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe

Every once in a while I go out to the mailbox and discover a book in the mail that I wasn't expecting.  A lot of those books end up sitting on my review shelf, but some of those books intrigue me enough to dig my eyes into them.  Such books tend to be quite good.  Dark Jenny is one of those books.

Dark Jenny follows Eddie LaCrosse, a witty sword for hire who'll solve any case for a reasonable price.  But Eddie also has a history that most people don't know about, and it involves the fall of
the kingdom of Grand Bruan, a feudal utopia with an Arthurian legend at its core.  When a mysterious coffin is left in the snow outside his place of business -- i.e., a tavern -- Eddie begins to weave a tale about murder, dark family secrets, unscrupulous and vengeful characters, and a version of Grand Bruan's fall that nobody has ever heard before.
Dark Jenny is a lot like the movie Clue on a twisted date with The Princess Bride.  Bledsoe's novel is one part dark comedy and one part social critique.  As a dark comedy, it benefits from having a strong protagonist and a solid cast of secondary characters. Eddie is sarcastic, witty, and clever, but he is also a farcry from the antiheroes of many popular fantasy series, despite his attempts to avoid involvement in anything other than his business.  The result was a character I enjoyed reading about and a character whose motivations I could understand, even if I might have disagreed with him.  This feeling is helped by the fact that Dark Jenny is a first person narrative, the result of which is a thorough understanding of Eddie's thought processes and a lack self-referentiality -- that is that the novel doesn't suffer from requiring some familiarity with Bledsoe's other works, however minute.  

Instead, the novel is made internally consistent by a character who feels fully-developed from the outset (the novel opens in a tavern and does a fantastic job of creating a sense of familiarity through Eddie's interactions with the various minor characters around him) and whose development is then displayed full-force by a flashback narrative (one which shows that development morally through his interactions with the people of Grand Bruan, in which his aggressive nature is challenged by -- and challenges -- people above his stature; we then get to see how his personality functions and why he is who he is).  Eddie's voice is perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel next to the genre critiques, without which I think Bledsoe's tale would falter.

The core of Dark Jenny is an Arthurian legend twisted on its head, in part because the kingdom has descended into barbarism, which the opening of the novel indicates, but also because Bledsoe doesn't avoid breaking down the utopianism of feudal myths (often through humor) in order to show the dark inner workings of societies which are served by those myths.  To put it another way:  Bledsoe's novel, despite presenting itself as a fun, but dark comedy, is one which critically engages with the mythologies societies give to their citizens, showing the tenuous balance between maintaining order and manipulating one's subjects.  (Bledsoe is engaging with the fundamental unknowability of utopia, which Fredric Jameson discusses throughout his writing, but specifically in Archaeologies of the Future).  Bledsoe relays these critiques largely through humor, which is refreshing when one considers how many fantasy novels deconstruct the feudal utopia through elaborate political or metaphysical pessimisms.

Dark Jenny does have some issues, though, some of which will be the result of the reader's taste.  While the novel contains within it a heavy social critique, its outer skin -- that of its comedic nature -- sometimes falls short from a language perspective.  Eddie frequently uses euphemisms which are far too modern for the world he is playing with.  Though Dark Jenny is set in a secondary world, I felt myself being drawn away from the story when phrases like "she's a knockout" appeared in the text.  Many readers may not be bothered by such things, but I find that the language can only be modernized so much before the story's medieval settings starts to feel strained against an encroaching modernity.

There are also issues related to the Bledsoe's use of sexual relationships.  I never got the sense that certain characters were reasonably attracted to one another (though there is a twist which explains why some characters are that way).  In Eddie's case, there is a love interest, but it felt somewhat strained to me.  I tend to prefer romantic relationships which develop realistically.  Eddie's "charm," while usually evident in other avenues (such as his interactions with Kay), wasn't given enough space in the romantic subplot.  There needed to be more interaction, because without it, I got the sense that the relationship did not contain the depth that Eddie frequently announced in the text (the relationship seemed to be about sex rather than some kind of attraction beyond the physical; the novel suggested that the relationship wasn't just physical).

The novel's structure is also interesting to note.  I feel that some readers will have issues with Dark Jenny's jumps between the world's present and its distant past (at about the same frequency as The Princess Bride), but I found the structure enjoyable and fascinating.  This means that the novel doesn't present itself in a straight way.  Some details are revealed from the start, while others are left to be discovered -- by the Eddie's past self and by the reader.  The structure works well with the mystery plot that begins the novel's present and past, and will certainly please fans of other genres than fantasy (mystery fans might find Dark Jenny enjoyable).

Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed the book.  It's a dark comedy/fantasy romp with a strong lead character, plenty of mystery and twists, and a solid plot.  I've been inundated with too many epic fantasy stories; receiving this book in the mail was a welcome shift from what I usually read in the genre.  You should definitely give it a whirl.

If you want to learn more about Alex Bledsoe and his work, check out his website.  Dark Jenny is available on Amazon and pretty much anywhere books are sold.

P.S.:  I love how the guy on the front looks suspiciously like James Callis (i.e., Baltar from the new Battlestar Galactica).

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2 comments:

  1. That's a very silly cover.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yeah. I don't care for the cover, but the book is good.

    ReplyDelete