Vocho and Kasha are duelists, or were, once upon a time. In these less enlightened times, not only are they no longer in the Duellists Guild, the Guild itself isn’t quite the institution it once was, after the fall of a King and the rise of a new order. Vocho and Kasha take whatever jobs they can to survive, and those jobs often involve the liberation of goods and funds from the more well off. However, the problem of being highwaymen is that sometimes you wind up with a cargo far beyond what you bargained for, a cargo that several factions are looking to capture, or destroy, with the fate of cities and even a kingdom in the balance. Now, with such a hot potato, the pasts of Vocho and Kasha seems poised to catch up with their present.
Swords and Scoundrels is the first in the Duellists Trilogy from Julia Knight. Julia Knight, under the name Francis Knight, is also known for writing the Fade to Black series.
At its base, at its most fundamental, Swords and Scoundrels is a sword and sorcery book, with a strong focus on the sword. The Renaissance Italian/late Moorish Spain feel of the city of Reyes and the province of the same name, with clockwork locks, a light touch of magic, and a whole lot of swordplay, gives the novel an alt-Renaissance feel. If anything, I wanted even more worldbuilding, more of an exploration of the city and the province. Sometimes the author provides only a thin veneer, showing the tip of the iceberg, instead of what lies underneath.
With what I was shown, however, I was strongly reminded of not only the new BBC series based on the Three Musketeers, but also the less successful and even more fantastic and clockpunk Three Musketeers movie. I also got a vibe from the L. Sprague De Camp Novarian novels, especially when the novel goes for its lighter moments.
Speaking of classics of fantasy, having a pair of main characters is a trope as old as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, if not older. Vocho and Kasha make an excellent example of the “Wunza” trope, and the siblings have distinct personalities and an interesting relationship.
The flashback sequence structure of the novel raises the book, though, from what could have been that more ordinary sword and sorcery novel with a brother and sister team, however interesting, into a more interesting narrative. The interleaved interludes are a real treat of the novel. More than just a flashback that reveals how the siblings got to their current predicament, the flashbacks show just how much the siblings, despite their professed family loyalty, really have been keeping secrets and telling lies to each other. It gives the reader a view of the relationship and the dynamics between Vocho and Kacha that the brother and sister themselves just don’t have. That imbalance between reader knowledge and character knowledge is interesting and makes for an intense read as the dynamics between the characters are explored. And in an inversion of the usual expectations, it is the female half of the team, Kasha, who gets more development, more personality, and more depth than her brother. While I would have liked a little more balance, I didn’t mind having Kasha be the lead of the book.
Aside from the siblings, however, the rest of the cast doesn’t come off quite as well. In particular, Petri, a major secondary character who intersects with the siblings again and again, both in the interludes and the present, felt much more like a plot device than a fully fledged agent of his own needs and desires. His appearances in the narrative, sometimes, felt more than a little contrived and in service of the particular needs of the plot, rather than his own inner life. Despite these weaknesses, Swords and Scoundrels is solidly written, excellently entertaining and a good example of sword and sorcery fiction with a little extra kick. It’s a fast and fun read.