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Book Review: The Shard Axe by Marsheila Rockwell

Genre: Eberron, Sword and Sorcery, Mystery
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast; Original edition
Publication Date: September 6, 2011
ISBN-10: 0786958596
ISBN-13: 978-0786958597
Author Website: Marsheila Rockwell

The Shard Axe is the second novel of Rhysling nominee Marsheila Rockwell, and her second set in Wizards of the Coast’s Eberron campaign setting. Designed to tie in to the Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited free-to-play MMO, the story follows Sabira d’Deneith, the diminutive but feisty axe-wielding woman as she attempts to search for a killer and save an old frenemy from taking the rap.

As the story opens, Sabira has attempted to hide herself away from some as yet undescribed horrific event in her past. Part of the thrust of the novel is the discovery of just what it is that is driving Sabira to destroy herself by drinking dwarven liquor and gambling away her profits. Sabira is a part of House Deneith, a group of semi-mercenaries that are most often hired to keep the peace. In this way, Sabira is a noir detective, hardbitten, broken by past injury, and rather self-destructive even as she skillfully solves crimes. As with any great noir, the protagonist’s past history cannot be wholly left undiscovered, and Sabira’s comes back in a big way. It seems Aggar, a dwarf she once defended from a serial killer known as the Nightshard has been accused of his own spate of serial murders. However, Aggar and Sabira did not part on the best of terms, and Sabira has vowed never to return to the dwarven lands. Yet circumstances conspire to prevent Sabira from keeping to her rash vow, and she must discover the real culprit behind the murders before Aggar is sentenced to death.

The narrative of The Shard Axe is a blend of noir mystery with sword-an-sorcery fantasy that I think comes off pretty well. Sabira has all the traits of the noir protagonist, the story is told from the third person limited perspective, the settings are suitably fantasy (with that Eberron twinge of the industrial revolution), as are the representative races and tinge of magic, and there is, at heart, a mystery to be solved. Perhaps there are a few plot holes – I fail to see why the dragonshard Sabira finds while killing flying lizards from a dirigible has anything to do with the mystery, though Rockwell attempts to work it in – and the occasional forced moments of action – like that previously mentioned, though one must admit the scene of Sabira jumping from flying ship to flying ship is one of the high points of the novel – but these are dismissible as minor foibles of growing novelist.

Too, it seems that the backstory that made Sabira into the cynic she is might have made for a more interesting novel. The whole time I was reading it, I wondered if this supposedly stand-alone novel had a prequel. It isn’t Legacy of Wolves, Rockwell’s other Eberron story, but it might be part of the Dungeons and Dragons Online plotline. Either way, it certainly makes for interesting character development as the story progresses and Sabira moves from the enigmatic to the sympathetic.

Sabira is a fascinating character. I mean, she is a short woman who wields a magical dwarven great axe who is respected by dwarves for what she once did for them. Dwarves are my favorite race in fantasy (no matter how depicted) and for a human to be respected by these skilled warriors makes me respect her all the more. Honestly, Sabira is the kind of heroine I’d like to have at my side, for all her angst, as she is honest and noble, hard-working and a friend even to those she dislikes. Good virtues for a fantasy heroine, I think. And, of course, she wields an axe!

The Shard Axe is a solid novel that blends fantasy and noir together well but not perfectly. Sabira is a wonderful character I’d like to see more of; perhaps in the implied prequel to this book? Rockwell has written a sword-and-sorcery escapist novel that is a nice addition to the Eberron canon.