Fucked-Up Elves Are Fucking Awesome: Pennyblade by J. L. Worrad

Posted 10th March 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 2 Comments

Pennyblade by J.L. Worrad, James Worrad
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Lesbian MC, bi/pansexual love interest, F/F, secondary gay character, tertiary trans character, extremely minor asexual character
Published on: 29th March 2022
ISBN: 1789097614
Goodreads
four-half-stars

A sharp-tongued disgraced-noble-turned-mercenary has to stop the world collapsing into chaos in this gripping, savagely funny epic fantasy packed with unforgettable characters, for fans of Joe Abercrombie.

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.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Highlights

~marriage-necklaces are awful
~twins are always gay, it’s a rule
~elite guard of post-menopausal women!
~never underestimate a nun
~masks, masks, masks

Pennyblade is a book that really shouldn’t have worked for me – because I do not read grimdark, and Pennyblade is, I think, grimdark.

But not very grimdark, in my opinion. Pennyblade is more crude than outright grim – I think it takes more than mud and shit and cursing to make a story grimdark, and the all-pervading sense of hopelessness and misery and people-are-awful,-always that is grimdark’s signature? Isn’t quite here. Pennyblade is sort of…sneaky-snarky-hopeful-maybe, under the mud and the blood. The ending, especially, left me grinning, and I don’t think grimdark really does that.

I don’t remember what convinced me to request a by-all-appearances-grimdark novel about a sapphic elf, but…probably it was the sapphic elf? Regardless, I’m so glad that I did, because Pennyblade is surprisingly awesome.

Pennyblade is narrated by Kyra Cal’Adra, a commrach (elf) who has fled the Isle of her people and now lives among humans on the mainland. The chapters alternate between two timelines; the events leading up to Kyra’s self-exile, and the mess she finds herself embroiled in while working as a ‘pennyblade’ – aka a sellsword or mercenary. The two storylines entwine in some very unexpected, clever ways, and although I was originally more interested in the earlier timeline set on the Isle, I ended up extremely invested in the ‘present’ timeline as well.

Whenever Kyran set out to acomplish something in life, life would step back and demur.

Reading about Kyra’s life on the Isle, it’s not at all clear why or how she left; the Cal’Adra’s are highbloods, nobility, and Kyra lives a very privileged life because of it. But those privileges come at a high price; namely, a complete lack of control over her own life. This isn’t because she’s a woman, but because she’s a highblood – one of those bloodlines that are being carefully cultivated by the unquestionable Explainers, with the goal being the Final Perfection – the ideal, perfected commrach.

‘You know, for all my people’s faults, not one commrach has starved or been without a roof in sixteen thousand years. And the emphasis there is sixteen thousand years. You creatures are lucky to make anything last a hundred.’

Basically? Elves are eugenicists. Hardcore eugenicists. And obviously eugenicists are terrible, but it’s the total subversion of the Wise-Beautiful-Elevated Elves trope that delights me so freaking much! The commrach fit the trope in many ways – they’re faster and more graceful than humans, they have limited forms of magic, and their society doesn’t use money, has no homeless people, and are fully accepting of all flavours of queerness (Kyra herself is a lesbian, her brother Kyran is gay, and we meet or hear about bisexual, trans, nonbinary, and asexual characters). At first, they look so much better than humans (who are living in the squalor, violence and homophobia typical of Fantasy’s take on the Medieval period) that no comparison is possible…but bit by bit, that layer of gilding flakes away, revealing something much uglier underneath.

‘That’s anger talking,’ Kyran said.

‘Common sense,’ I replied.

Kyran snorted. ‘How often the former masquerades as the latter.’

There are two ways to read Pennyblade: either it’s extremely male-gaze-y and thus kinda gross, or Worrad is a genius. See, sex is a very big deal in this book; there’s a lot of it, and most eyebrow-raisingly, we learn that the commrach essentially go into heat like cats. This involves a lot of seriously pornographic behaviour, and a fair bit that’s quite cringey; I found it hard to take how female commrach make yowly noises (again, like cats in heat) during their ‘equinox’. Given that Kyra is a lesbian, and thus almost all of the sex scenes revolve around F/F sex – and given how crudely it’s all depicted – it’s very easy to accuse Worrad of writing Pennyblade as an excuse to play with a sexual fantasy, rather than writing it as a ‘proper’ novel (whatever ‘proper’ is supposed to mean).

But I would argue that what reads as a gross male gaze on a queer woman is actually a majorly important element of the book. The commrach believe themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, but that stance is majorly undercut once you see them making yowly cat noises at each other. (The men make fewer stupid noises, but they’re easily as sex-drunk when heat hits.) The crude, animalistic behaviour we see the commrach engage in – more, that they can’t stop themselves from engaging in – proves to the reader that they have a very obvious bestial aspect to them, and no amount of (often justified) contempt for humanity can make that untrue. The commrach can call themselves the most sophisticated beings on the planet all they like, but the narrative makes it clear that they’re just as much animals as humans are.

And I think the proof of this is: the sex scenes that actually matter, that take place between two people who love each other – those scenes are all, without fail, fade-to-black. Worrad draws a respectful veil of privacy over characters who are, for lack of a better term, making love; it’s only the fucking, the animalistic sex that means nothing, that appears in detail on-page.

‘Love enough to burn the world?’ you said.

‘Is there any other kind?’

So while I completely understand that this book is not going to be for everyone, I closed the final pages massively impressed with Worrad’s worldbuilding, and how he managed to tell us the commrach are not what they say they are – without ever actually telling us, but by showing us instead. It reads like one of the best examples of show-don’t-tell that I’ve come across in a good while.

Pennyblade is crude, rude, violent, and contains a lot of appalling things, but I absolutely adored the worldbuilding. Awful as they are, the commrach might be my favourite elves ever – specifically because they’re so fucked-up (and so not, at the same time, in other ways). I can’t say you’ll finish the book loving Kyra – she’s not really what you’d call likeable – but I ended up hugely invested in her story and rooting for her all the way.

I did think the ending was a little weak – the twist-reveal was amazing; the response to it was a bit too cliche – but all-in-all, as long as you know what you’re getting into re grimdark themes and very crude sex all over the place, I strongly recommend it!

Pennyblade comes out on the 29th of March, and you can preorder it now!

four-half-stars

2 responses to “Fucked-Up Elves Are Fucking Awesome: Pennyblade by J. L. Worrad

Leave a Reply

(Enter your URL then click here to include a link to one of your blog posts.)