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Book Review: Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe

Genre: Noir, Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Mystery
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition
Publication Date: March 29, 2011
ISBN-10: 9780765327437
ISBN-13: 978-076532743
Author Website: Alex Bledsoe

Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe, third in series of stand-alone stories that blend crime noir with epic fantasy, is a nice light reading treat is good but doesn’t live up to its reputation. Dark Jenny is the frosted cake you know you shouldn’t eat on your diet, but that you eat anyway because you have been awful good this week and then feel guilty about later.

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword-for-hire. When a coffin shows up in the dead of winter at his favorite dive bar, he is led to reminisce about a bygone time when he was involved in a crime solving caper that is a parody of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

Grand Bruan is an island that had been rent by civil war. But then Marcus Drake drew a sword from a tree and brought peace to the land at its point. Now peaceful for twenty years, old secrets threaten the harmony of Grand Bruan when a Knight of the Double Tarn is poisoned by an apple. LaCrosse, there on another mission entirely, is accused by the nobility of the crime, though the Knights of the Double Tarn believe it was actually Queen Jennifer Drake who did the deed. Eddie is commissioned by Bob Kay and then Marcus himself to solve the dastardly murder. This leads Eddie to uncover courtly secrets long-buried that will lead Grand Bruan (this is not a spoiler, it says so in the first chapter) into civil war once again.

One thing Bledsoe writes well is the parody. Anyone familiar with the Arthurian Legend (even Disney’s The Sword in the Stone) will see the analogy to those stories, and Bledsoe twists them comically while still maintaining their inherent shape. Readers will be familiar with the content of the story, if not the way the whole thing plays out in the end. At the same time, this parody is part of the story’s failing. Too much of the content is familiar and the ending becomes predictable as a result. The fact that Bledsoe tells us at the beginning of the novel that the whole story doesn’t end well made me less inclined to enjoy it. I like humorous tales to end on a high note.

I do like the way that Bledsoe melds the crime noir and fantasy elements together. They really are inseparable, so that Eddie’s character is both twentieth century private investigator of cynical temperament in the vein of Sam Spade and a guilt-ridden anti-hero of fantasy like Erevis Cale. Bledsoe melds the modern and the medieval well. He has a female doctor, but in his world this is nothing strange, and he has knights of the realm go by prosaic names like Bob or Tommy and has Eddie call them by it rather than “lord” or “lady”. It is that sort of “who cares about social standing” attitude that is so integral to crime noir detectives, but at the same time is in a decidedly in a castle, horse, and sword setting.

And there are little bits of cleverness along the way as well. “See Rock City” is an iconic piece of eastern seaboard Americana that finds its way into the narrative, as does the worldwide frustration with vehicle traffic caused by construction. How is that possible in a medieval world? That would be telling, but Bledsoe mixes the modern and the mythic in a downright funny way.

That being said, I am not totally sold on the novel. It’s funny, but it is also violent (which sometimes undoes the funny bits) and the mystery angle was so predictable as to be dull. I knew the culprit almost before the story started, and if not for the rampant, exciting violence (heads hacked off, faces beaten in) and the cynicism of LaCrosse that I connected to, I might have left the book unfinished.

There are two sex scenes (one very early in the book, and another involving Eddie) that add little to the plot that could not have been gotten some other way. And of course, the parody is based on Arthurian legend and readers must remember all that entails about Arthur’s (Marcus’) progeny.

I had heard great things about Bledsoe’s stories and felt Dark Jenny to be an entertaining let down. It’s fun, but it isn’t remarkable.

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