Black Blade BluesBlack Blade Blues, by J. A. Pitts

When I skimmed the blurb for this book, I miscategorized it. I read that it was about a blacksmith named Sarah who winds up with a powerful magical sword, and I assumed it was traditional, secondary-world fantasy. But no! It’s urban fantasy, set in the modern world.

For many readers, that’s a selling point, but not for me. I love books with deep worldbuilding and deep characterization, and urban fantasy usually disappoints me in both. The worldbuilding is just the equivalent of mixing chocolate and peanut butter. The modern world, plus vampires! The modern world, plus werewolves! Yawn.

In this case, it’s the modern world, plus Norse mythology! Which I admit is cooler, because it hasn’t been done to death yet, and Norse mythology has some depth to it. As for characterization, urban fantasy books pretty much all have the same character. She’s a young woman with attitude. She’ll have some kind of physical marker of counter-culture status, such as a tramp stamp. She may have some feelings of insecurity, but she’ll always kick ass. And she’ll have two impossibly hot guys chasing after her that she’ll have to choose between.

Let’s see if Sarah from Black Blade Blues fits the mold.

Young woman. CHECK.
Physical marker. CHECK (Doc Martens).
Insecurity. CHECK.
Kicks ass. CHECK.
Two impossibly hot guys…

Actually, no. Because Sarah’s a lesbian! She has a girlfriend, and their relationship is rocky and troubled, but there’s no choosing between two hot love interests in this book. I read over 100 books a year (which is why I get so jaded when it comes to certain genres), and do you know what? This is the first book I’ve ever read with a lesbian protagonist. So right there, that was my favorite thing about this book.

As for the rest, I think it just wasn’t for me. It opens well, with Sarah discovering that a sword she picked up is the legendary Gram, a magical weapon from Norse legend, and suddenly she’s being tracked by a variety of creatures from Norse mythology and asked to kill a dragon, who’s currently taking the form of an investment banker in Portland. I liked the idea of dragons hiding in the U.S., disguised as powerful humans.

But then the pace gets sluggish, and we have a couple hundred pages of slow plot development along with some relationship drama between Sarah and her girlfriend Katie. The relationship drama revolves around Sarah, who was raised by religious fundamentalists, being uncomfortable accepting herself as a lesbian, especially in public, whereas Katie has no such issues. In theory, it’s a good conflict, but it didn’t really draw me in, especially since Katie didn’t feel well-developed as a character. Also, I wanted to see Sarah’s religious background come into conflict with her increasing awareness that the Norse gods, in this world, are real, and that never happened.

Things get exciting again when there’s an encounter with Odin–who takes a surprising but mythologically accurate form–and a giant battle with a dragon, which is great for a while but goes on too long. I also raised my eyebrows at a few things, like when Sarah’s friends from the SCA help her fight, but with swords and axes. Guys, in a life or death battle, why not GUNS? Later, they find out that guns would not have worked, but they didn’t know that going in. It made it seem like they were treating the battle as a game, when in fact people had been kidnapped and it was serious business.

Another thing I wanted in this book and didn’t get was more blacksmithing details. Blacksmithing isn’t a common profession in the modern world, and I’m a geek who likes to know how everything works, so I wanted to get a picture of what it’s like being a modern-day blacksmith. We got a few details, and a couple of good scenes that show how Sarah’s work calms and focuses her, but I wanted more. What was it like nailing shoes onto recalcitrant or frightened horses? What were the different metals she used, where did she get them, and did they require different techniques to work? How does she add decorations and such to the swords she makes for con-goers and collectors?

On the whole, I was looking for more depth than I got, but honestly, I have this reaction to almost every urban fantasy book I read. This book strikes me as a good example of its genre, and for anyone looking for something a little fresher than vampires and werewolves, and especially anyone who likes Norse mythology, Black Blade Blues will probably satisfy.